Starting Tuesday, Romania is hosting a two-day conference of European nations to discuss how to help integrate Roma travelers. Europe's social affairs commissioner said financial help is available to member states.
France has deported thousands of Roma to Romania this summer
The European Commission will once again push member states to do more to improve the situation for Roma travelers on Tuesday at a conference in Bucharest. The meeting was organized after the French government began its deportations of Roma families over the summer, drawing international criticism.
The Bucharest conference aims to promote the better use of EU funds to improve the socio-economic situation of the 10 to 12 million Roma living on the continent. They face discrimination, poverty, segregation, and barriers to education and the labor market in many of the European countries in which they settle.
In Slovakia, for example, only 3 percent of Roma children finish secondary education. In Bulgaria, over 50 percent of Roma are unemployed. In Romania only about a quarter of Roma have a steady job.
European funds are under-used
In recent years the European Union has brought in a comprehensive financial program to promote the integration of the Roma and Sinti travelers. But Romania and Bulgaria, the EU member states with the biggest Roma communities, have made little use of the subsidies.
Despite the high-profile debate about integration of Roma sparked by France's crackdown on its traveling community, the European Union's commissioner for social affairs and inclusion complained recently that few nations are drawing on the available financial aid.
Laszlo Andor wants countries to make better use of European funds
"I would like to stress that this is the responsibility of the European Union and the member states together," Andor said in the European Parliament. "The structural funds offer a very useful financial lever for supporting national efforts to improve the situation of the Roma. However, EU funds are often not fully used, or not used in the most effective way."
Currently Romania is only using 1 percent of the 2.25 billion euros ($3.1 billion) made available by the European Social Fund between 2007 and 2013 to improve the situation of vulnerable groups. Bulgaria is only using 5 percent of the fund.
Integration is not just about money
However, there is of course no compulsion to use the money. The German conservative MEP Manfred Weber hopes there is enough incentive for countries to apply for the money if they need it.
"The decisive factor in integration of course is always that it can't be proscribed from above, rather it's got to happen in the towns, in the communities themselves," Weber told Deutsche Welle. "It demands creativity."
The European Commission has set up a working group to assess why the Roma struggle so much with integration. The group will deliver its findings by the end of the year.
In the meantime Andor wants member states to set ambitious targets for tackling poverty and improving the educational horizons of the Roma.
In Slovakia, only 3 percent of Roma children finish secondary education
"It's only about poverty reduction, it's not only about social inclusion," the commissioner said. "We have to ensure that the Roma are explicitly mentioned in our new employment flagship initiative, because that's also where a breakthrough has to be made."
Manfred Weber believes governments have to tackle the root of the problem by targeting education.
“We have to follow through the idea that children of this ethnic minority must attend school. Only then can we succeed in truly integrating these travelling families into European societies.”
The problems for the Roma in Europe are not new. There is money available in Europe to tackle it. But it has taken the row over the policy of deporting Roma from France to bring this much-beleaguered community into the spotlight.
Author: Christoph Hasselbach (jli)
Editor: Rob Turner