Last week the leaders of the European Union struck a deal on a stimulus package and tough emission cuts by 2030. In the next few years, billions of euros will be disbursed in various schemes to help member states with a transition to renewable energy and sustainability under the union’s Green Deal, designed to combat pollution and climate change.
In developing its economic strategies to tackle global warming and environmental degradation, however, the EU should not, and cannot, afford to ignore the Roma, as it has done during past crises and transitions.
In ex-communist EU countries, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Roma were the first to lose their jobs in state-owned rural enterprises and the last ones to be hired under the new and competitive market-driven transition. Similarly, the 2008 financial crash and its recovery policies skewed in favour of big banks and companies not only pushed the Roma deeper into poverty but also gave rise to xenophobic, populist, and far-right politics which weaponised hatred against us.
If the EU does not include special provisions for the Roma in its post-pandemic economic plans, the situation will get worse, and not only for the Roma. If discrimination is not addressed through social and economic empowerment, the far right will continue to use the Roma issue for its own political gains and grow stronger.
And if serious measures are not taken to eliminate barriers to economic activity and employment among the Roma, the EU – which is already suffering from a lack of workers – will face immense economic losses as a result of labour shortages. A recent study shows that by 2025, countries like Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, and Slovakia, will need more workers than they have.
Thus, investing in Roma communities, which are the fastest-growing and youngest communities in Europe, is not only a matter of human rights, but also a matter of sound economic and political policies.
So what can the EU do to include the Roma in its economic plans for green development?
The Green Deal is a major historical juncture that could either help or hurt already vulnerable Roma. The way the deal is conceptualised is likely to ignore the informal economy where a large number of Roma people earn their income.
In Romania and Bulgaria, for example, the prevalence of informal employment among Roma men is three to four times higher than among non-Roma, while among Roma women it is about five times higher than among non-Roma.
While for many others this is about growing capital and increasing profit, for the Roma it is about survival. They have ended up working, living, and consuming in informal circumstances due to a combination of multi-generational poverty, discrimination, low education, labour market barriers and failures, and the unfulfilled promises of transitions.
However, this structural problem does not affect only the Roma. Across the world, the livelihoods of the poor are deeply entrenched within the informal economy where working conditions are often degrading, income unreliable and abuse rampant.
According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, globally, the informal economy encompasses 81 percent of all enterprises, 61 percent of employed people, and 94 percent of workers with no education. In the EU, it is estimated that the informal economy provides a significant share of GDP: 30 percent in Romania and Bulgaria, 20 percent in Italy, Spain, and Hungary, and 10-13 percent in France and Germany.
The Green Deal will likely introduce stricter regulations and make funds available within the formal economy, giving a significant advantage to bigger companies. In the case of recycling, for example, this may result in significant livelihood loss for many Roma people.
Likewise, when the EU and national governments downscale or shut down the mining, automotive, and other polluting industries, the workers who will lose jobs will likely get training to help with a career change, which many Roma working informally will not have access to.
Roma households will also struggle to meet any zero-carbon energy or transportation requirements. The informal nature of some of their settlements may make a transition to greener sources of heating difficult, while the precariousness of their situation will likely make it impossible for them to afford a new electric vehicle.
That is why we need a process of formalisation of informal sector workers and entrepreneurs within the Green Deal. However, formalisation through harsh labour and tax inspections, conditionality, and regulations would place a burden on small entrepreneurs and precarious workers, endanger their livelihoods, and create social and political tension.
Instead, the EU should work with governments towards formalisation based on incentives, such as tax reductions, simplification of business registration, and business advice.
They should provide opportunities for stable income by providing training for workers, incentives for employers to hire them, and affordable financing for small entrepreneurs who are presently struggling with their informal status. Illegal activity, such as illegal logging, can be more effectively combatted by targeting communities involved in it and engaging them in paid reforestation work.
Progressive green subsidies would also help poor households, including the Roma, with the transition to clean energy, sustainable housing and transportation.
In the past, when implementing EU Roma policy, the European Commission has taken the rather passive role of a monitor. This has allowed governments to get away with not fully implementing provisions of this policy and altogether neglecting their Roma populations.
Any Roma-focused policies included in the Green Deal are at risk of meeting the same fate if the Commission does not take a more proactive role in making sure they are implemented by including funding conditionalities for governments and companies.
For example, the “renovation wave”, a Green Deal programme for optimising the energy efficiency of buildings, should target the poorest households struggling to access heating, electricity, and water. Companies which win contracts under this programme could be incentivised to employ workers from these poor communities where the renovation will be carried out.
Local governments can also be incentivised to resolve the problem with informal Roma settlements. EU funding for green transitions can be tied to local programmes for relocation of Roma families to formal housing.
Indeed, there are a variety of ways in which the EU can approach its green targets while making sure it does not leave the Roma behind. Such initiatives would be neither costly, nor more time-consuming; rather, they would be incredibly beneficial to both member state governments and the Roma.
It is clear the green transition can be an opportunity to correct the unfair course of historic neglect Roma communities have suffered. What is not yet clear is whether the EU and national leaders see this and are prepared to take a stand and make this happen.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.