GLOBALCIT Review Symposium of The Fringes of Citizenship: Romani Minorities in Europe and Civic Marginalisation by Julija Sardelić


Romani Europeans into Citizens

Manuela Boatcă, University of Freiburg

The central tenet of Julija Sardelić’s book is that, for the Roma in Europe, having equal citizenship status with majority populations has not resulted in equal protection of rights. This clash between the legal and the social reality of Europe’s most marginalised population is examined using the legal arrangements and policies on the citizenship status and rights of various European states and how these continuously (re)produce the marginality of Roma. Through a detailed analysis of seemingly neutral laws, policies and official discourses, the book provides an abundance of evidence against the enduring narrative that the position of Roma is exceptional, their culture foreign and their minority status therefore incompatible with the liberal notion of citizenship.

Theoretically, the book professes a global citizenship studies perspective in order to capture the mechanisms through which it is the states’ multicultural citizenship practices that create what Sardelić calls the ‘edges of citizenship’, which in turn leads to the systematic placement at the ‘fringes of citizenship’ of marginalised minorities as diverse as African Americans in the U.S., Indigenous people in settler colonial states, and the Roma in Europe. A similar – and equally convincing – comparative approach is used to analyse the position of stateless Roma with that of other stateless minorities worldwide – the Rohingya from Myanmar, residents of Haitian descent in the Dominican Republic and the descendants of the Windrush generation in the UK. The wide range of distinct instances of marginalisation and statelessness from across the world discussed through the edges-fringes framework effectively dismantles the notion of Roma exceptionalism as an explanation for why the Roma continue to be marginalised citizens today.

The goal of the book, stated early on, is a theoretical enquiry into “the paradoxes of citizenship that construct exclusion when it should be offering all-encompassing inclusion” (p. 15) and a plea for “the potential for the reconstruction of citizenship itself to become truly inclusive and without invisible edges” (p. 20). Through this very framing, the book however commits to an international and comparative approach to citizenship studies, rather than the global and connected approach it professes. The two are related, but they are not the same. The latter approach would not be invested in comparing the position of the Roma in different regimes of liberal citizenship, but across conceptions of citizenship distinct from the liberal one – the context of the Ottoman empire and its citizenship regime, analysed in detail by Engin Isin, would indeed be particularly telling for the Roma. A connected histories approach would rather inquire into the position of the Roma exiled from the Iberian Peninsula to Brazil in the wake of the sixteenth-century European colonial expansion, which continues to make up a sizable, active and increasingly visible Brazilian minority to this day. More important yet, a global perspective on citizenship would not approach inclusion and exclusion as paradoxical mechanisms, but as the very logic according to which the institution of citizenship was designed to function since its emergence – as both sociologists and legal scholars have now argued for some time. Historically, the institutionalisation of citizenship did ensure the relative social and political inclusion of the population in Western European nation-states, but at the same time also accounted for the selective exclusion of colonised or non-European populations from the same social and political rights (Korzeniewicz and Moran 2009). As such, citizenship still functions as a kind of inherited property – in terms of goods and rights to goods closed off through national borders – that restricts membership in well-off polities to a small part of the world population (Shachar 2009).

Of course, the early insight that “In global perspective, citizenship is a powerful instrument of social closure, shielding prosperous states from the migrant poor” (Brubaker 1992: x) still holds the promise of an internally inclusive, even though externally exclusive citizenship with its roots in coloniality (Boatcă 2021a). This makes the inquiry into the status of those stigmatised as the migrant poor, yet holding citizen status – such as the Roma in Europe – all the more pressing, and concepts such as the ‘fringes of citizenship’ necessary to fill an obvious gap in previous conceptualisations.

The question is whether a focus on the present and recent past of the production and reproduction of the fringes of citizenship can shed light on the specific processes of exclusion and racialisation that Europe’s Roma populations have faced throughout history. Put differently – can we account for the position of the Roma in Europe today without going further back in history than World War II? Legal scholar Dimitry Kochenov has argued that “Historically, any citizenship status has always played a crucial role in policing strict arbitrary boundaries of exclusion […]. The neutral status of equals is a powerful tool to instill racist and sexist exclusion. Indeed, doing this has traditionally been one of the core functions of citizenship” (Kochenov 2019: 8).

While not all work can or should be of a historical nature, some of the questions Julija Sardelić raises in this book are inextricable from a longer history and would actually reinforce several of the book’s main points when traced back to or discussed in the context of that history. Central among them is the issue of the construction of Romani migration from the European East as a ‘threat’ to Western European members of the European Union due to the alleged higher likelihood of the Roma to migrate when compared to majority populations. The book makes clear that the purported massive migration of the Roma to Western Europe never happened and that in fact very few Roma are migrants, even though the stigma of nomadism and its associated negative connotations persist in racist views of the Roma to this day. State control measures directed at the Roma with a view to assimilate them into the Habsburg monarchy in the first half of the eighteenth century is indeed the earliest historical connection the book makes (via the work of Huub van Baar) between past and present representations of the Roma as nomads. If, as Julija Sardelić rightly states, the Roma in Europe should be addressed as citizens and not as migrants, at stake is the larger question of when migration stops being the permanent background against which one’s belonging, citizenship, and, in this case, Europeanness are being measured. Those to which migration is ascribed by default, such as Roma, are thereby permanently left at the fringes of all of the above, including citizenship, and mostly defined out of whiteness. The assumption that certain individuals or groups have (recently) migrated, whether or not they ever actually did, has been theorised as ‘migratism’ – a form of racism when directed at those racialised as non-white (Tudor 2022). While the Roma have migrated from India to Europe, the approximately one thousand years since that process does not warrant their acknowledgment as Romani Europeans today, indeed that very designation is unthinkable, to borrow Michel Rolph Trouillot’s term for the Haitian Revolution (Trouillot 1995). Their interpellation as migrants instead of citizens is thus not only an instance of migratism but reveals that their unequal citizenship status in Europe is only a late – yet no doubt important – moment in a long history of being at the fringes of different regimes of belonging that long predate the emergence of citizenship as an institution but are being reinforced through it.

This history includes the Roma’s position at the fringes of notions of the human during the five hundred years of their enslavement on the territory of today’s Romania. As property of the state, of Orthodox monasteries, or of noblemen, they could be bought and sold, gifted, bequeathed, offered as dowry, or exchanged for debt – and thus treated like objects, or at best lesser humans. Pope Francis’ apology to all Roma in Europe for the harm inflicted on them by people and institutions affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church, discussed at length at the start of Chapter 3, is therefore not only a significant event that made headlines all over Europe; the fact that it was issued during the Pope’s 2019 visit in Romania, where Romani enslavement lasted until the mid-nineteenth century, yet where no similar apology has ever been issued on behalf of the Romanian Orthodox Church – one of the enslavers – points to the location of the Roma at the fringes of the politics of memory, too. This is part of what, according to Fatima El-Tayeb, makes the Roma “the European minority par excellence” (El-Tayeb 2011: xxvii). Present in Europe for centuries, but still not considered of Europe or addressed as Europeans, the Roma are not part of Europe’s reckoning with either racism or enslavement, which routinely restricts European racism temporally to the Holocaust, conflating racism with antisemitism; and relegates enslavement spatially to Africa and the Americas, equating enslavement with the transatlantic trade. The Roma fall through these temporal and spatial cracks in Europe’s current politics of memory, which remains incomplete without consideration for the history and the present of anti-Roma racism, the legacies of Romani enslavement in Europe, and their implications for the (im)possibility of constructing an identity as Romani Europeans (Boatcă 2021b).             This brings me to the issue of language in the book. Perhaps because of the emphasis on legal aspects and the analysis of legal documents concerning Roma, terms like ‘stereotypes’, ‘ethnic profiling’, and (racial) ‘discrimination’ are much more prominent and used more frequently than ‘anti-Roma racism’, which features occasionally, or ‘racialisation’, which is not used at all. This choice of terms has methodological consequences, such as clearly placing the focus on the present construction and reproduction of racist notions rather than on the continuities in the process of their historical formation – which fits the socio-legal, present-oriented framing of the analysis. Yet the repeated use of the term ‘anti-G*ism’ instead of available alternatives – from Romaphobia to anti-Roma racism or Gadjé racism – stands in contrast to the acknowledgment of the fact that the root word, G*, is offensive to most Roma. Its use has repeatedly been denounced as such by Roma scholars, activists, and the communities themselves as one that “stands as a symbol for Romani historical oppression and gadjo-ness” (Matache 2017). It is here that my plea for attention to (not necessarily a detailed engagement with) the longue durée of Romani history meets the clear political and scholarly aims of this book: language politics itself belongs to the politics of memory, and both are necessary to overcome the civic marginalisation of the Roma today.