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EU searches for answers in Roma integration debate

Integrating Roma in European countries has proven to be difficult, but experts at an EU conference are trying to find solutions. The two-day conference is being held in the Romanian capital, Bucharest.

A Roma family in front of their house in Romania

Some Roma have been deported back to Romania from France

European Union officials, Romanian politicians and Roma representatives are discussing integration issues regarding Europe's Roma population at a two-day EU conference held in Romania's capital, Bucharest.

The conference is aimed at finding solutions on how to achieve more with the money spent by the European Union on integrating Roma, said the European Commissioner for Employment and Social Affairs, Laszlo Andor, at the opening of the conference.

"A lot has been done in terms of strategic planning, coordination and implementation, but at the end of the day, not much has really changed." he said. Andor wants EU member states to become more engaged in integrating their Roma population.

Laszlo Andor, European Union Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion Photo: AP

"Not much has really changed" - Andor said at the conference

"The EU cannot solve the multi-layered problems of the Roma by itself," he said. "The European Union is ready to step up its efforts for Roma integration, but that is also what we expect from all member states."

Funding is available, yet few members take the money

Even though the European Union has funds available, member states refrain from using the money. From 2007 until 2013, the European social fund offered 13 billion euros ($18.1 billion) to help finance education and housing projects for Roma.

Especially countries with a high number of Roma population like Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania were expected make use of the funds. The EU has installed a task force in order to find out why member states do not act even though the funds are available. The task force is expected to present its results by the end of this year.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said that the integration of Roma would be one of the main focuses in Hungary's term in the EU presidency beginning in January.

According to Andor, France's drastic measures of expelling thousands of Roma were "very unfortunate", but "ironically energized the discussions on Roma inclusion."

Problem of Roma integration will not affect Schengen talks

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said after a meeting Romanian Prime Minister Emil Boc that the problem of Roma integration would not affect negotiations on Romania becoming part of the Schengen zone. Being a country within the Schengen treaty would give Romanian citizen visa-free travel within the European Union.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel at a news conference in Romania

"A long way from the end of the road," - according to Chancellor Merkel

Merkel said that Germany would judge Romania's development on their way to the Schengen treaty fairly - but did not promise a quick entrance to the Schengen zone. "The reforms of the judiciary and of interior affairs are being tackled very courageously, but you are still a long way from the end of the road," Merkel said.

"We back Romania's efforts to join the Schengen zone... but we must make sure that visa delivery procedures are not marred by corruption," she said. It is crucial that Romania only issue visas without signs of corruption or unregularities and that EU's external borders are safe. "There are no reasonable alternatives to transparent and clear legal terms."

Romania is hoping to enter the Schengen zone in the middle of 2011. The country has been a member of the EU since 2007. Most of Europe's Roma are said to live in Romania, but there are no reliable numbers - with figures ranging from a population of 530,000 up to 2.5 million.

Reporter: Sarah Steffen (dpa/afp/epd)
Editor: Chuck Penfold