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


A Union of Equality? Minority inclusion and participation when some citizens are less equal than others

Tina Magazzini, European University Institute

Julija Sardelić’s book The Fringes of Citizenship offers an ambitious and compelling critical view of how Romani minorities have been (and are) discriminated against in Europe through the lens of citizenship studies.

The choice of engaging global citizenship scholarship to explore the civic marginalisation of Romani minorities is not an obvious one. While the fields of Romani studies and citizenship studies have both seen an increase in academic interest and publications over the past decade, they typically neither inhabit the same ‘conceptual space’ nor engage the same scholarly debates.

The Roma (as an umbrella term) make up Europe’s largest ethnic minority, but one that remains a stand-alone exception (who constitutes Europe’s second or third largest ethnic minority?) and comprises a broad internal diversity in terms of citizenship and legal status. This generates two main conundrums on how minority rights research has so far approached Roma inclusion/ exclusion. One is that the unit of analysis tends to remain the nation-state even though the subject is transnational, giving rise to the same pitfalls of methodological nationalism encountered by migration studies (Wimmer and Schiller 2002). Another issue is that even though there is widespread acknowledgement that Roma suffer “discrimination on the grounds of racial or ethnic origin” (European Commission 2020) the remedy to such discrimination is presented in terms of ‘minority integration’ rather than of affirmative action (Magazzini 2021). The Fringes of Citizenship, by offering a series of juxtapositions and comparisons between Roma minorities in Europe, Indigenous people in Australia and Canada, African Americans in the US, and the children of the “Windrush generation” in the UK, among others, manages if not to solve these two problems, at least to address them head on and not get caught up in them.

The first part of the book looks at how the ‘invisible edges of citizenship’ push racialised minorities to make an impossible choice between belonging to an ethnic community or to a country, implying a trade-off of loyalty and identity that does not contemplate hyphenated identities. This, in turn, places racialised minorities on what the author terms the ‘fringes of citizenship’, which are neither static nor fixed, but rather ambiguous spaces of (mis)recognition where some cultural specificities are acknowledged at the expense of less-than-full citizenship status.

While the difference between what Sardelić terms the ‘edges’ and the ‘fringes’ of citizenship is not intuitively straightforward; what is clearly exemplified throughout the first half of the book is that ethnic identity is often employed by governments to create a ‘citizens – minorities’ divide, which in turn is profoundly consequential in terms of the (lack of) access to rights for those minorities who end up on the fringes of citizenship.

This point comes across poignantly in looking at Romani minorities’ limited access to freedom of movement within Schengen, in parallel to the limitations posed by the Australian government on some Indigenous communities (Chapter 2). Similarly, Chapter 3 raises the school segregation of Black children in the US to highlight the patterns of discrimination in different contexts, without losing sight of the specify of different citizenship regimes.

The justifications employed by governments for placing Romani and racialised minorities into a sort of ‘probationary citizenship’ category (Chauvin and Garcés-Mascareñas 2012) is a well-rehearsed one: their ‘vulnerability’ and need for special protection –from trafficking, from a ‘problematic’ culture, from their families, from themselves. In this sense, it would be interesting to take the comparison one step further and engage with the recent literature that has been exploring how ‘vulnerability’ gets used to justify discriminatory referrals and the detention of Muslim individuals in Europe (Aked 2021, McNeil-Willson 2021).

Perhaps some of the most high-profile cases of differential treatment of racialised minorities in Europe in the past years have been those of UK citizens who, having joined ISIS, were stripped of their British citizenship, regardless of whether they were minors and of whether this resulted in statelessness, a fascinating dimension that Sardelić addresses in Chapter 4, calling it “total infringement of citizenship”.

By taking stock of, but also looking beyond, the more rehearsed cases of statelessness emerging from the disintegration of former European states, what is rendered explicit here are the cracks and fissures that exist in the very infrastructure of citizenship legislation and its implementation. In many instances, by looking at the state policies and the lack of access to the legal and/or administrative resources needed to claim and access citizenship – for example placing the burden of proof of statelessness status on the stateless person himself or herself –, it becomes clear that denial and misrecognition are part of the policy design which is built to keep certain groups out (or on the fringes), rather than an unfortunate blind spot in the system.

In my opinion, this is a section that would perhaps deserve more space (or could even become a project in its own right), especially since it involves many different layers, comparative cases and possible outcomes. The case of the Russian-speaking minorities in the Baltic states, in particular, raises the issue of all those in-between limbo situations that do not neatly fit the definition of statelessness, but still imply the denial of the political, economic and/or social rights that are supposed to come with citizenry. While a comprehensive mapping of the huge number of cases that could fit this category is clearly beyond the scope of this chapter, and could become a separate volume encompassing dozens of cases from Puerto Ricans in the United States to Arabs in Israel, the choice of the cases analysed in this chapter could be better explained, particularly as the issue of whether statelessness operates in radically different ways in liberal democracies compared to autocracies is touched upon but not really developed.

Finally, Chapter 5 does an excellent job at highlighting the gap between the legal and practical dimensions of citizenship. It does so by bringing in the agency of those who are often presented as mere objects rather than subjects of policies. Having analysed the plight of the Roma in Europe and explored how other racialised minorities around the world are similarly placed on citizenship fringes in previous chapters, the idea of ‘citizenship sabotage’ is put forward as a way to perform or enact citizenship in the face of discrimination and rejection. Instead of buying into an understanding of citizenship as a ‘privilege’ to be either ‘earned’ by the perceived outsiders through hard work or that might be ‘granted’ to them by the institutions upon proof of good conduct, what emerges through the personal stories of Romani individuals pushed to the margins is a reality of agency and resistance.

An advisory report prepared at the request of the European Commission by the European Services Network (ESN) and the Migration Policy Group (MPG) as a tool to monitor the integration of immigrants and evaluate integration policies claimed: “Naturalisation is both a final step in a process and a tool to further improve integration in several areas of life. Citizenship is a societal outcome indicator, a policy indicator and a measure of openness of receiving societies, all at the same time” (Huddleston et al. 2013, p. 6). It has been argued that it is precisely whether Roma individuals are perceived as citizens of the respective country (regardless of their actual legal status) that determines the type of approach that states take toward their ‘integration’ (Magazzini 2020), but what if being a citizen is not automatically a synonym of being integrated in the first place?

Looking at citizenship from its borders and margins, beyond the legal dimension, Sardelić puts front and centre what often goes unexplored or remains implicit in socio-legal studies: that all law is politics, but not all politics is law. Through a series of comparisons that venture outside of the usual European ones, she makes an important contribution to both the fields of global citizenship and of Romani studies by forcing a dialogue between the two, and in doing so she makes explicit some of the ways in which formally guaranteed rights (both international legislation as well as inclusion policies) fail to protect racialised minorities.

Citizenship is always a relational institution, and it is constructed in the process of engagement with those who are at the border and outside it, even if through processes marked by a strong unbalance of power relations. Through bringing together a combination of the political, legal and sociological aspects of citizenship, Sardelić recognises the relational nature of citizenship and unpacks in an elegant and compelling way a multidimensional institution where the expectations of people are deeply interconnected to those of their communities, are not fixed in time, and are deeply reactive to how they are treated.

On the whole, however, I would argue that the main contribution of this volume is to be found not so much in the analysis of citizenship itself or in the new terms that the volume puts forward (the fringes of citizenship, the invisible edges of citizenship, the total infringement of citizenship and citizenship sabotage), which may or may not stick, but rather in the breath of the comparative cases that the volume draws upon.

There have been numerous calls over the past years for Romani studies to engage with broader dynamics and processes and to challenge the exceptionalism paradigm in which it finds itself cornered. This book is the proof that this can be done without losing sight of the uniqueness of the Romani minorities in Europe, and that researching how other marginalised minorities have been segregated, othered or rendered stateless can help bring into sharper focus the state mechanisms at play.

I am left with the question of what it would look like if one analysed the positionality of Romani minorities not only with reference to other non-Roma racialised minorities in different settings across modern plural democracies, but also compared to other Romani minorities in non-European contexts. Some work in this direction has already started (Dolabela and Fotta 2021), and The Fringes of Citizenship offers solid ground to better understand how lines of differentiation, of inclusion and exclusion, are constructed and maintained within the citizenship paradigm.