Making sure that all Roma children go to school is a top priority for the European Commission, which presented proposals yesterday (5 April) for each EU member state to develop a national strategy for Roma integration by the end of the year.
National strategies should include specific targets and measures for increasing Roma people's access to education, employment, health care, housing and essential services, the Commission said.
The aim is to bridge the huge gaps that currently exist between the Roma community and the rest of the population, especially in countries where Roma live in significant numbers – Romania, Bulgaria, Spain, Hungary, Slovakia, France and Greece.
Problems with Roma integration came to the fore last summer when France cracked down on illegal Roma camps, leading to a clash between the French government and the European Commission.
Speaking in Strasbourg on Tuesday (5 April), Viviane Reding, the EU commissioner in charge of justice, fundamental rights and citizenship, told journalists why access to education was chosen as the top priority.
"Surveys show that in some member states, only about 42% of Roma children complete primary school. The European average is 97%. Our goal is to ensure that every Roma child completes primary school at the very least," said Reding.
More than a third of the Roma community comprises children under 15 years of age, while less than one sixth of the overall population is this young.
"If we want to solve the problem for the next generation, then the current generation of Roma kids has to go to school," said the Commission vice-president, admitting that this was "easier said than done".
Reding referred to a joint initiative that the Commission is supporting together with the Council of Europe, with the aim of training 1,000 mediators to facilitate communication and dialogue between Roma communities and public authorities in different European countries.
The Luxembourger said the Commission wanted to give Roma communities and national authorities "a helping hand" in identifying problems and working together on implementing effective solutions, taking the specific situations of each country into account.
National governments will have their chance to discuss the Commission's proposals at forthcoming meetings of ministers dealing with social affairs and education.
EU leaders are expected to adopt conclusions on Roma integration at their summit in Brussels on 24 June.
Closing the employment gap
On employment, the Commission points to research conducted by the World Bank, which estimated that the full integration of Roma into the labour market would bring about significant economic benefits, which in some countries could amount to millions of euros per week.
"If you bring people into the labour force, this improves productivity, cuts welfare bills and boosts tax revenues," explained Reding.
When it comes to health, Europe's Roma suffer from much higher childhood mortality rates and lower life expectancy than the rest of the population.
The Commission believes that poor health among Roma is linked to insufficient access to adequate housing, together with basic amenities like electricity and clean drinking water.
Member states will therefore be expected to set national targets for ensuring access to quality health care and improving the living conditions of Roma communities.
Improving the use of EU funds
The Commission has promised to work with national and regional authorities to make better use of EU funds for financing actions and initiatives that directly benefit the Roma population.
According to Vice-President Reding: "At the EU level, there are €25.6 billion of funds which could be utilised to support Roma integration strategies in the member states."
However, she told journalists that less than 5% of this money (around €100 million) had already been earmarked for measures that benefit Roma people.
"It is also very clear to see that 70% of the money which is available for helping to set up the structures for grassroots work has not been used," Reding said.
She admitted that "funding alone cannot solve the situation" and spoke of the need for enhanced political commitment by political decision-makers at local, national and European level.
László Andor, the EU commissioner responsible for employment, social policy and inclusion, said there was significant scope for improving the functioning of the EU's structural funds in order to make a greater impact in terms of Roma integration.
"Developing better programmes is particularly the duty of the member states and the regional authorities, those who design how the structural funds are being used on the ground," said Andor.
The commissioner said that the regulations for the next period of structural funds should be drafted in such a way as to provide "greater room" for projects targeting Roma integration.
He said that this would mean making greater efforts to simplify the procedures involved in applying for EU funds, and also to strengthen the capacity of civil society organisations representing Roma.
Link with 'Europe 2020' framework
Andor emphasised that the Commission's support for national strategies in favour of Roma integration should be seen in the context of the overall framework of the 'Europe 2020' strategy, which was adopted by the European Council in June 2010.
He mentioned in particular the target of reducing the number of people living in poverty by 20 million across the whole of the EU, and noted that while the average poverty rate for the whole of the EU was around 17%, the poverty rate for Roma was at least four times higher than this.
"It's not just lower living standards but also very difficult coexistence and relations in general between the Roma minorities and the mainstream society which we have to observe and we have to turn around if we want to improve the situation," said Andor.
The commissioner said that the framework of the 'Europe 2020' strategy would "guarantee that there is adequate and robust monitoring of the developments every year".
He referred to the flagship initiatives being developed at EU level to address unemployment and poverty, and said that both of these explicitly recognised the need to improve the opportunities available to members of Roma communities.
"Now we have to make sure that in the Europe 2020 strategy and also in the national reform programmes, the member states are explicit and the Roma strategies will connect with the 2020 monitoring," stressed Andor.
'No tolerance for racism' – Andor
Commissioner Andor was asked to comment on the activities of the extreme-right Jobbik party in Hungary, which has been accused of encouraging violence against Roma.
"The rise of certain xenophobic and sometimes explicitly racist tendencies in recent years, also in Hungary, is a major concern, and it undermines the social and political stability in certain neighbourhoods and certain regions," he said.
"Of course this has to be confronted. I think in a democratic system which is based on human rights, there can be no tolerance for racism," the Hungarian commissioner stated.
"We must work to eliminate such danger, which can also be life threatening," he added.