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Roma in Europe

Interview: Verica Spasovska / jrbSeptember 11, 2013

In many European countries, the Roma are socially marginalized. In an interview with DW, EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding calls on member states to fight discrimination

Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Deutsche Welle: The progress report of the European Commission on the Integration of Roma in the EU Member States in June 2013 is so devastating that it has been referred to as the "stagnation report" by German media. Why so is it so devastating?

Viviane Reding: We should remember the starting point: There was no coordination of Roma integration at the European level. The Commission began an arduous but necessary process. And the pressure worked because we were able to convince member states to develop national Roma integration strategies, which the Commission reviews once a year. So at least we can make public which country does its homework and which doesn't.

We are also beginning to see progress: Many member states are now coordinating their efforts to integrate the Roma much better. But there is still plenty to do. For example, civil society organizations could be better integrated. Investments in educating the Roma are investments in the future. Only when these people have jobs can they contribute to the economic development of the country, pay taxes and social contributions, and contribute to pension funds.

The report also mentions positive examples, such as the regional action plan of the German state of Berlin for integrating Roma migrants, as well as the opportunity for 15,000 young Roma people to study at Romanian universities. Are there any other good examples?

Yes, in different member states, and let me highlight a few: In France, for example, the cooperation between national authorities and local participants functions very well, and EU funds are now being used more effectively in Bulgaria. Hungary has developed a robust system for monitoring the implementation of its national strategy, and Spain has 158 police officers trained to deal with ethnic discrimination. Such examples are encouraging but, unfortunately, they still often remain the exceptions. National integration strategies and their implementation are important precisely for this reason.

In Germany, we often hear the argument that the migration of the Roma to Germany can only be stopped if the conditions in their own countries can be improved. Would you agree?

Freedom of movement in the European Union is a precious right that applies to all EU citizens, including members of ethnic minorities. Immigration is an opportunity for Germany and for Europe - on that point I completely agree with German Labor Minister Ursula von der Leyen. Stopping immigration from one EU country to another would be an economically misguided policy and also incompatible with EU law.

At the same time, it is also clear that the member states must do more to integrate the socially disadvantaged and, in particular, to improve the future prospects of the Roma. They need to ensure that these people receive a good education and have access to the labor market. The EU supports the efforts of member states, for example, with funding from the European Social Fund. Member states also need to decisively combat Roma discrimination and exclusion.

The German federal government recently announced a crackdown on poverty immigrants from Romania and Bulgaria. Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich recently said those who abuse welfare services will be deported in future and banned from reentry. How do you view this statement?

Let me state very clearly that freedom of movement is a fundamental right and at no time is it subject to debate. European citizens who exercise their right to freedom of movement are not immigrants. All European citizens have the same rights. The Roma are also EU citizens and, as such, have same right to freedom of movement.

With populist rhetoric, some politicians appear hopeful that they will win votes today, but later generations of European citizens will pay the price down the road. This rhetoric also doesn't correspond to European values, including respect for human dignity and the rights of minorities. That's why I expect leading policymakers in the member states to oppose such populism. For my part, I will do my best to champion the fundamental right of free movement. That said, member states should use their national laws to combat welfare cheats, regardless of nationality. But there is no reason to uproot freedom of movement.

Roma are frequently victims of racial violence, also in the EU countries. Does the EU Commission have the means to force member states to pay more respect to the rights of the Roma?

The EU Racial Equality Directive prohibits discrimination due to race or ethnic origin in employment, education and social security as well as access to goods and services, including housing. All EU member states have implemented this policy in national law - under pressure from the Commission. Regulations exist, and member states are obligated to apply them. National authorities and courts are responsible for monitoring the regulations.

In addition to this legislation, however, I am committed to giving member states concrete support. With the progress report, we have specifically helped member states strengthen their efforts for the first time. Initiatives to help the Roma must take place at the local level, different countries need to work together, and action is urgently necessary to improve the situation of the young Roma.

Viviane Reding from Luxembourg is the Vice President of the European Commission and EU Justice Commissioner. Before becoming a member of the Commission, Reding was a member of the European Parliament. In 2010, she accused France of deporting Roma on the grounds of their membership of an ethnic minority and called for an infringement procedure against the country.