The (weird) debate around European Roma Institute (ERI)

15 Apr

I was excited to read the position of Yaron Matras on ERI. I heard him talking a few weeks ago in Bucharest and I was pleasantly impressed. An academically argued paper on the good and bad parts of ERI was something that I was looking for especially after a ranting and at best confusing position of the ex-president of the ERTF.

It turned out to be another unpleasant surprise. The published text is plagued by manipulative, poorly argued and some offensive statements. The full text can be found here

In italics fragments from the text.

Manipulative statement.

Billed as a “Roma-led” initiative, its declared purpose is to sponsor Romani artistic cultural production, to raise awareness of the Roma and to advise the Council of Europe on policy in relation to Roma.

ERI is not billed as a Roma-led initiative. It is a Roma led initiative. “Declared purpose” suggest that there might be some other purpose and leads the reader from the start in thinking that ERI is something bad without bringing any (logical) argument why is it so.

Manipulative statement.

Western governments in particular reacted sceptically when the ERI was first announced in April 2014as did the ERTF and the Romani Study Network.

Not all western governments reacted. Ignored is also that a good number of governments including at least one western government (Belgium) were positive. The ERTF and Romani Study Network have only to lose (influence, funding, visibility) if ERI becomes a success therefore their position risks to be seen as biased if not properly argued. Moreover, there were many western governments that reacted against or skeptically (UK, Spain, Netherlands, France, Italy, Belgium) when the first proposal for the establishment of ERTF came about.

Manipulative statement.

Academics were worried that ERI’s declared ambition to “license research and teaching on Roma” would allow a circle of appointed individuals to interfere with the content of research and so potentially with academic freedom.

The correct statement should read I(Yaron Matras) and (other 3, 4, 5…), are worried. There are hundreds if not thousands of academics that could claim their opinion on ERI would be relevant. The overwhelming majority of those do not know anything about ERI therefore would be hard to argue that they are worried about its ambitions.

Manipulative and offensive statement.

This concern was amplified by the fact that those individuals, who were at the time known to be part of the circle of designated leaders of ERI, issued an overt challenge to established academic research in Romani studies, claiming that it lacked representation from scholars of Romani ancestry and was therefore inherently biased.

There is no logical link between the fact that there is a valid concern regarding institutional racism among academic outlets that are funded (some heavily) for Roma work and dominated by non- Roma and the establishment of ERI. The fact that Yaron Matras automatically assumes that “ those individuals…part of the designated leaders of ERI” will interfere with academic freedom is a worrisome and rather offensive statement that could be interpreted as a sign of racism.

Manipulative and offensive statement

In a well-choreographed effort to pre-empt the critics, the second attempt to launch ERI was announced on March 26, 2015 in a joint online commentary from the Council of Europe’s secretary-general Thorbjørn Jagland and George Soros.

It is illogical and therefore it needs a rock solid  proof to back up the statement that two of the best known people in the world decided to silence the critics ( almost unknown in comparison) by publishing an article in a newspaper that is part of the Economist group – one of the most respectable publishing group there is. This proof is missing.

Manipulative statement.

The public statement, which caught key advisers to the secretary-general by surprise, came just one week before a scheduled discussion on the topic at the Council of Europe’s parliamentary assembly.

It is irrelevant if there were some of the many key advisers caught by surprise (moreover, this is once again a statement impossible to prove) . What would have been relevant to include in order to support such a statement is if their surprise should matter, why so and what is wrong with it. Neither one of these issues are addressed by Yaron.  What seems to be also ignored is that any decision of a leader of a huge organization has a very high potential to surprise a few.

Manipulative, contradictory and offensive statement

In the very same week, it was announced that German parliamentarian Phillip Missfelder – who had tabled a motion on ERI at the Council of Europe back in March 2014, had been appointed as rapporteur on Roma for the parliamentary assembly, thus ensuring that the ERI would command support from all sides.

Yaron assumes that the parliamentary assembly is stupid enough to be manipulated to support ERI because of Missfelder’s appointment as a rapporteur. There is nothing in the text that will explain why Matras thinks that Missfilder will command support from all sides.

Manipulative and possibly offensive

As for the concept itself, while Council of Europe officials continue to insist in informal conversations that the recruitment process for ERI’s management will be open and transparent, OSF has made it quite clear that it has a fixed idea as to who would run the institute. It hints at an alliance which in fact includes individuals who have been referring to themselves in discussions with Council of Europe officials as “the Roma elite”.

Some of them have a track record of rising up against both grassroots representatives of Roma, accusing them of everything from corruption to misogyny, and against academic experts in Romani studies, accusing them of a power monopoly.

Informal conversations are again something that can not be proved. Hinting at an alliance contradicts the sentence just before it which reads that the OSF made it quite clear. Using quotes for “Roma elites” might be interpreted as offensive it has been in the case of other minorities. Some of them is an ambiguous terminology that leaves open the imagination of the reader. The author implies that rising up against corruption and misogyny within Romani leadership or contesting academic experts in Romani study disqualifies people from being Roma elites. This is a terribly poorly thought statement coming from an academic expert.

Manipulative statement

Overall ERI appears so far to be a conflation of financial muscle and top-down political power, pitched as a way of handing the power over the dissemination of knowledge on Roma to those who self-identify as Roma.

Again there is nothing that proves this statement. The fact that something appears to be in a certain way to Yaron Matras still needs to be proven by arguments. The author offers none.

Manipulative statement

Such an initiative risks rupturing the respect that the Council of Europe commands as the leading European institution on human rights – and one that is governed by consensus rather than muscle.

Again there is no argument that can back up the statement above. The Council of Europe risks also to be lead by aliens together with ISIS but as long as there is no good enough argument that can prove this risk there will be very few that will take it seriously.

Manipulative and possibly offensive

It also risks using Roma as tokenistic representatives to legitimise an agenda that has become driven primarily by the need to maintain contracts for funded service interventions. Worse, it risks delivering a setback to the efforts of the past two decades which aimed to highlight the plight of the Roma as a human rights issue by foregrounding the more popular image of Gypsies as entertainers, best represented by the romantic imagery in the joint commentary by Jagland and Soros.

There is always a risk for using Roma as whatever. A respected academic needs to prove that such a risk is something that makes sense to be taken in account. It is possibly offensive to talk about the efforts to highlight the plight of Roma ( a good number of those efforts could be argued to have been lead exactly by  the same “Roma elites” Yaron attacks ) as a way to denigrate the initiative of Jagland and Soros.

Manipulative, offensive and possibly racist

Finally, by putting forward the notion that knowledge on Roma should be the exclusive property of those who self-identify as Roma, it jeopardises the freedom of academics to engage in such studies on the basis of their qualifications and expertise. This means that non-Romani academics whose research might bring them to different conclusions than those that ERI prefers to showcase, might find themselves accused of prejudice and colonialism.

There is nothing in the concept paper, article in the European Voice or anywhere else I looked regarding  of ERI to support this statement : that knowledge on Roma should be the exclusive property of those who self-identify as Roma. Using a false statement to argument an imagined complot to jeopardise the freedom of academics to engage in such studies on the basis of their qualifications and expertise is offensive and considering the final of the statement it might also be perceived as racist.


If this happens, it will discourage many from engaging in the study of Romani culture – and will thereby isolate Romani studies from mainstream academia and confine it to a sector that is politically managed.

It could happen that the sun will die tomorrow despite overwhelming proof that this is rather impossible and therefore highly speculative. Arguing that the establishment of  ERI will lead to an isolation of Romani study from mainstream academia is alsohighly speculative. It is also in my opinion intellectually dishonest.

*this is not an article in support of ERI or those that lobby for it. I have a neutral position about it and no interest whatsoever to be part of the team that will manage the institute. I also think there is a very important role to play by academics such as Yaron Matras in the Romani movement ( judging on his academic work on linguistics and not on this article). I do know that some of my articles  lack some very much the needed proofs. Working on it – I do not see myself yet neither an academic nor an intellectual.

7 Responses to “The (weird) debate around European Roma Institute (ERI)”

  1. Yaron Matras April 15, 2015 at 6:46 pm #

    You are absolutely right, Valeriu, in pointing out that a political commentary is not a scholarly publication, and that it is not possible to reference each and every statement (though some links were provided in the original, which you have removed in the quotations); but that is the nature of the medium, and I do not think it is ‘manipulative’. I have expressed my concerns based on the information available to me. If it is incorrect, then let’s hear from the circle who initiated ERI, that a) they will recruit their board in an open and transparent procedure, based on qualifications and not ancestry, and that b) they will refrain from intervening in any way with academic freedom. And then we will see what the future brings. If my concerns turn out to have been ill-founded, then that will be a gain for all of us; and if it turns out that ERI will be fair, transparent, inclusive, non-interventional and respectful of academic freedom, then I promise that I will be the first to stand up and salute it, and to admit that my pessimistic predictions have been proven wrong. (Yaron Matras)

    • valeriucnicolae April 16, 2015 at 5:38 am #

      And I will also be among the first to talk against it if ERI turns to make some of the huge mistakes that lead to the downfall of ERTF. As with any organisation ERI will need help from many to keep staying on a good path.If ERI will ever try to bully any academic opinion I promise I will join you in condemning that.

      • Yaron Matras April 17, 2015 at 7:53 am #

        In is noteworthy that in the meantime nobody has made any public statement about the merits of ERI (except Colin Clark, who asked for ERI support in Glasgow, where he works). Valeriu’s contribution focuses on criticising my critique without actually responding to the arguments themselves. But I’ll gladly respond in more detail to his critique, point by point. I believe that in many cases the issue is one of language and context, and not of principle:
        1. It is disputable whether ERI is Roma-led. What is clear is that it is led and facilitated by OSF and the leadership of the Council of Europe, who entrusted a small number of people, some of them claim Romani ancestry, to develop and represent the concept.
        2. ‘Declared purpose’ means that this is what the initiators said they intend to do
        3. In April-May 2014, there was not one single Western government that supported the concept. Belgium supported it this year, mainly in a ceremonial role as part of its presidency.
        4. There are indeed risks to ERTF and to EANRS, but not because of the formation of ERI itself; rather, because of the way ERI is pitched, in competition with these initiatives and the principles that they represent
        5. ‘Academics were worried’ meant that those who expressed their opinion on the matter in public were concerned;
        6. Valeriu denounces my writing as ‘manipulative’ but does not hesitate to accuse EANRS of ‘institutional racism’: where is the evidence for that?
        7. I do not ‘automatically’ assume that individuals will interfere with academic freedom BECAUSE they are Roma; THAT is a manipulative statement from Valeriu. My concerns arise based on a long track record of performance of many of those individuals who are involved in the ERI initiative
        8. ‘pre-empting’ the critics does not mean ‘silencing the critics’
        9. That key advisers were caught off-guard is very relevant, because it shows how Jagland by-passed the normal consultation structures of his own organisation in order to push through a decision.
        10. I don’t assume that PACE is stupid, but I do know that most members are not immersed in the details and tend to adopt the recommendations of a Rapporteur, and so there is little doubt that Missfelder was appointed to ensure that the motion passes (since last year it in fact failed to get support in PACE).
        11. Informal conversations can be proved if the writer witnessed them. We are not in court proceedings, but in an open political debate
        12. My concluding statements are my personal opinion and assessment of the facts and circumstances. Nobody is obliged to share them with me; but voicing my opinion, based on 25 years of involvement in and observation of Romani politics, is my right and is not automatically ‘manipulative’ — certainly not more so that making the statement in public claiming that ERI will deliver what it promises.

  2. valeriucnicolae April 17, 2015 at 1:57 pm #

    Yaron – your initial text is weak. I wait for a text that is worth commenting from you – based on facts .I am sorry to see that even this reply is once again manipulative and poorly argued. Let me prove just one thing to you. You write :” Valeriu denounces my writing as ‘manipulative’ but does not hesitate to accuse EANRS of ‘institutional racism’: where is the evidence for that?” I wrote :… there is a valid concern regarding institutional racism among academic outlets that are funded (some heavily) for Roma work and dominated by non- Roma and the establishment of ERI. Again in case you missed it – there is a valid concern regarding institutional racism… The fact that there are at least 7 well educated and known Roma that think academic outlets funded for Roma research do it without involving Roma despite enough very well educated Roma out there I think is a valid concern. I wish I could say that I found at least one of your replies satisfactory. I did not – and it is too easy to show that your arguments are weak but we waste our time with it. The response here seem to be emotional and not logic. The fact that this is your personal opinion and a political one is a very poor excuse for a text that is not worth your name on it. I studied your texts. I know you are a great academic and probably the best linguist on Roma issues. You made a mistake. We all do. Move on.

  3. Yaron Matras April 17, 2015 at 4:05 pm #

    Perhaps it’s the opacity of your own words, Valeriu. What do you mean when you say “institutional racism among academic outlets that are funded (some heavily) for Roma work and dominated by non- Roma” — who are you referring to? You don’t say, but you allow us to guess. So if I guessed wrong, then perhaps yes, I may have made a mistake; but then tell us you are referring to, rather than play guessing games with suggestive arguments.

  4. Yaron Matras April 25, 2015 at 9:43 am #

    Friends have been asking me why I have been spending so much time posting replies on private blogs. My answer is that the debate around the ERI initiative has brought up some very important issues about Roma participation in academia. I am grateful to Valeriu and others for opening their pages to replies. I’d like to address several questions that arise from some recent postings on this topic:

    1. Is current research on Roma dominated by Western, white, colonial scholars?

    Historically, we might say ‘yes’; but this is the case in every academic discipline, including physics, sociology, theology, Jewish studies, and arguably even gender studies and cultural theory, where most active participants are white Western individuals living in centres of current or former colonial power. That said, Romani studies has prominent figures of Jewish, eastern European, Middle Eastern, and other backgrounds. Many scholars working this field, irrespective of their background, have a track-record of anti-colonial activism that has strongly influenced their analytical paradigms.

    2. Does current research on Roma focus mainly on folkore and the like?

    No. Take just a glance through the library catalogue of any major university at recent scholarly journal articles on the topic ‘Roma/Romani’: You will find analyses of policies toward Roma, or Roma participation, and of anti-Roma images in media. The journal ‘Romani Studies’, for example, has published over the past fifteen years many articles on these topics, by the likes of Colin Clark, Andrew Ryder, Annabel Tremlett, Marton Rővid, Aidan McGarry, Paula Trevisan, Kristine Duaud, Laszlo Strausz, Margaret Greenfields, Michael Zimnmermann, Abby Bardi, Eva Sobotka, and numerous others. Many scholars contribute regularly on such topics to other scholarly journals too.

    3. Is all research on Roma being carried out without Roma?

    There are some models of good practice in this area. The MigRom research consortium, funded by the European Commission, includes as one of its full partners the European Roma and Travellers Forum, a Roma NGO, which contributes actively to research design and to the dissemination of results. All five academic partners in the consortium engage part-time Roma assistants who contribute not just to data collection but also to analysis. The University of Manchester, which is the lead partner on MigRom, employs on the project three Roma on a full-time basis and three others part-time; they work alongside one non-Rom full-time, and three non-Roma part-time.

    4. How do we best ensure that the study of Romani culture gains respect?

    In my opinion, the best way is to make sure that Romani history and culture, and critical perspectives on Romani participation and Roma/non-Roma relations, are not segregated, but instead are given the attention they deserve within mainstream academic establishments such as universities, journals, and research centres. Many colleagues have been working hard to achieve this for many years now, with good results.

    5. Is it a problem that Roma are under-represented in academia?

    Yes, but not because all current research is biased against Roma, and not because Roma necessarily have a different viewpoint or analysis than non-Roma. The need for Roma participation in academia is part of the overall need for more Roma participation in general. What we need are more Roma with full academic qualifications, who work to the same academic standards, and whose work is respected not because of their Romani background but because they are good scholars who make original contributions.

    6. What can we do about this?

    We need to train more Roma as academics. We need to make a special effort to overcome barriers in secondary school education, which will allow more Roma to continue to higher education. We need to ensure that more opportunities are available for Roma to get sponsorship for university degrees, especially postgraduate and research degrees, so that they can join top universities that have an established reputation, and not be segregated in their own Roma institutes. We must make sure that Romani academics are trained to the same standards as non-Roma and can compete for jobs and research grants on the basis of merit, in order to ensure that they command the full respect of their peers and their students.

  5. Yaron Matras May 29, 2015 at 4:18 pm #

    Some weeks ago, I wrote that I was cautious about ERI because I feared that if it proceeded as envisaged, it might turn into a ‘thought police’. Some people responded critically and asked me how I could possibly predict ERI’s actions before it was even constituted. They had a point.

    But in the meantime ERI’s initiators — the ‘inner circle’– have responded to some of the arguments in public, and the content and manner of their responses now provide us with insights into their mindset and, if we might call it that, their philosophy of management:

    1. OSF’s concept for ERI was ready and given limited circulation already in February 2014; yet it took the inner circle 16 months to initiate a public consultation on the document, and they only did so after I repeatedly challenged them to. So their approach is: first we secure a decision and funding, and put ourselves in charge, and only then we ask for your views.

    2. Soon after launching a consultation, OSF began to weed out online comments on the document and publish only those that were supportive of the initiative. The few public presentations that were scheduled to inform about ERI excluded critics and were organised in a way that would prevent debate rather than enable it.

    3. Challenged to provide evidence for their assertion that ERI has received wide support for many years, the inner circle produced on their Facebook page a long list of quotes from documents that call for support for Romani culture. They want us to believe that every statement in support of Romani culture made over the past three decades necessarily leads to the conclusion that ERI must be set up, and that they, the inner circle, must lead it. Of course there is no such connection, and there are many ways to support Roma culture other than to give control to the murky inner circle.

    4. The inner circle has also been manipulative in trying to “split their critics”, trying to give the impression that the ERTF was on their side by posting pictures and citations from key ERTF figures on their Facebook page. At the same time we have heard no public response from the inner circle to the ERTF’s critical position papers about ERI and the arguments raised there; they have simply glossed over that criticism, assuming, apparently, that publishing pictures online is an adequate mode of appeasement.

    5. The group has also entangled itself in contradictions. It was proud when Jagland announced that ERI will provide ‘policy advice’, and it also claimed to be speaking on behalf of numerous Romani intellectuals, artists, writers and more; but when it was faced with criticism it all of a sudden claimed that it was not interested in representing the Roma, and that in fact the group was speaking on its own personal behalf and not on behalf of the Romani community, whether intellectuals or common folk. It also denied that ERI was to be a substitute for ERTF, yet the group has been standing passively in the fringe since Council of Europe officials began to link ERI to the discontinuation of the Council of Europe’s agreement with ERTF as part of a single new ‘Roma strategy’. It seems that the inner circle is prepared to advise on policy, but incapable or unwilling to take a position on what is arguably the most important policy decision of the day, namely whether or not Roma should continue to have consultative status at the Council of Europe and what form this status should take.

    6. The most blatant form of defiance is the inner circle’s reluctance to respond in any way to the critique of ERI’s management concept: why should its leaders be allowed to appoint themselves and their friends? who is going to scrutinise the appointment procedure? and how will the ERI leadership be accountable? These are issues that even the Council of Europe itself raised with the inner circle last November, but the inner circle arrogantly brushed them aside threatening the Council of Europe to “proceed without them” if it didn’t accept the inner circle’s own terms. Faced with the prospect of being left behind, the Council of Europe capitulated and shelved all its values about transparent and accountable management. Cleaners , security guards, and porters at the Council of Europe need to apply for their jobs, submit a CV and a reference, and attend a job interview; but ERI’s inner circle has royalty status and will be chosen to lead ERI simply because they feel that are qualified to do so.

    Given this track record of the past few weeks and months, can we entrust the gloomy inner circle with public funds and with the task of leading the international effort to promote Romani culture and to confront anti-Gypsyism? The answer, I think, is obvious.

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