This year’s memory of the extermination of the Roma at Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1944 is reinforced by the recent death of Roma Stanislav Tomas after an incident involving the Czech police.
Monday, August 2, is Rome’s Holocaust Memorial Day.
Stanislav was a citizen of the EU and the Czech Republic, a former army soldier, worker and family man whose life was mired in humiliation and the vices of poverty. The brutality of his death and the state’s response exemplifies the long suffering of Europe’s Roma, which peaked in the genocide of World War II and continues in various forms to this day.
The silence of our political leaders in Europe until their death contrasts with the vocal statements surrounding the death of George Floyd, in Minneapolis, last year.
For example, Chancellor Angela Merkel, who received the European Sinti and Roma Civil Rights Award earlier this year, condemned the American police involved in the murder of George Floyd, but kept silent about the death of one of the citizens of the European minority in the case of Tomas.
The same approach was taken by the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, and the EU’s head of foreign affairs, Josep Borrell.
In reaction to Floyd’s death, the European Parliament adopted a resolution. However, in Tomás’ case, no party group leader in the European Parliament has made a statement, much less pushed for a resolution.
The Secretary General of the Council of Europe, Marija Pejčinović Burić, who spoke out on the death of Stanislav, has been a noble but exceptional example among European leaders.
What can explain this apparent silence?
An anonymous spokesperson for the European Commission gave a bureaucratic justification that they cannot comment on ongoing legal proceedings and investigations in EU member states. It is absurd that EU political leaders could take a position on a US citizen while the justice process was still ongoing, and not have them refer to the EU citizens they claim to represent.
So what other reasons could be behind this?
Ignorance? Not quite. The international media covered this story surprisingly well. Compared to the death of Miroslav Demeter five years ago, which was largely invisible in the media, Stanislav Tomas’s story garnered extensive media coverage.
Attention was also drawn to protests organized by Roma in the Czech Republic and in front of Czech embassies in Austria, Germany, Serbia, Romania, Hungary, North Macedonia, Kosovo and Albania.
The anti-racist intergroup of the European Parliament and the trans-European campaign Proud Roma, Free Europe addressed the EU leaders asking for their support in the demands for justice for Stanislav.
Perhaps this silence was born from the lack of geostrategic bets? The EU had a clear geostrategic interest in talking about George Floyd, in the context of the US elections. The last US presidential elections provided an important stage for proclaiming the EU values of equality and anti-racism. However, proclamations are one thing and deeds another. Russia, despite its lack of respect for human rights, seized this opportunity and spoke out on the death, putting the EU, which had gained some advantage over the United States, in an embarrassing situation of self-harm.
Could the October parliamentary elections in the Czech Republic explain the silence? Two days after Stanislav’s death, Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš gave his full support to the police and claimed that they had acted completely correctly. In a broader setting, he also refused to join 18 other EU member states in disapproving of Hungary’s anti-LGBT legislation as a sign of support for his anti-EU ally, Viktor Orban. Such signals could hold back EU leaders, concerned that a high-profile conviction could provoke Babiš into a Viktor Orban-style anti-EU attack, especially as his EU funding corruption scandal appears to be challenging. facing three months before the fall elections.
Perhaps all, one or none of these reasons can explain the silence, but its consequences are dangerous for the Roma and harmful for the EU. At home, it is hard to believe that the EU’s anti-racism policies can make any difference if EU leaders remain silent even in such an extreme case. This discourages the pro-European forces and motivates the extreme right and its deeper infiltration among the police forces. Whatever the reason for their silence, European leaders are setting a dangerous precedent and undermining the EU’s credibility at home and abroad. In the field of EU foreign policy, this silence is a good example for Russia and any other rival of the EU to show the duplicity of the EU.
In the bigger picture, at least on August 2, the commemorations of the Roma genocide offer an opportunity to reflect beyond the daily calculus of politics and pose a question about what has enabled the genocide: resistance or silence? The legitimate confrontation of the EU leaders with George Floyd and the unfair rejection of Stanislav Tomas gives a demoralizing and ambivalent response.
For us, 12 million Roma in Europe, and more than 20 million worldwide, the memory of our ancestors murdered in the gas chambers of Auschwitz-Birkenau. This forces our struggle despite the silence of the EU leaders that reminds us of the words of Dr. Martin Luther King: “In the end, we will not remember the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
Zeljko Jovanovic is the director of the Open Society Office of Roma Initiatives.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism