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Romanian Ambassador: Progress to be made

INTERVIEW: With a whirlwind of paranoid tabloid headlines meeting the lifting of migration restrictions for Romania and Bulgaria on Jan 1 of this year, Romanian Ambassador Lazar Comanescu talks Roma integration.

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Photo by Veronica Jonsson

The Romanian ambassador to Germany, 64-year-old career diplomat Lazar Comanescu, elaborates on the highly controversial issue of Roma integration.

How many Romanians have entered Germany since travel restrictions for Romania and Bulgaria were lifted on January 1, 2014? And how many of them were Roma?

We don’t have precise figures, but the German authorities estimate that approximately 250,000 Romanians are in Germany as of today. We don’t have an exact figure for the number of Roma among them, as official statistics do not address ethnicity. Statistically, of the 20-21 million Romanians in Romania, 6 to 7 percent are Roma.

What is Romania doing for Roma integration?

In the first place I would like to underline the fact that the EU guidelines and standards regarding minorities are being fully respected. Romania respects the human rights of all minorities, be they Roma, Hungarians, Germans or others. We apply ‘positive discrimination’ in fields such as education – for example, the Roma population has places reserved for them in universities.

Like the Hungarians, they have their own representatives in parliament. We have a special Roma advisor to the prime minister dealing with ethnic and Roma issues. We also have a National Agency for Roma Affairs devising programmes to improve their living standards.

Romania registered 3.6 percent economic growth in the last year – the highest rate in the EU. Ultimately, the increased level of disposable income will allow money to filter down to strengthen every part of society, especially the Roma. I am filled with optimism.

Is it true that Romania only spent two percent of its allocated EU funds for Roma integration in 2010?

Things have improved significantly. By the end of 2012 only 8 to 9 percent of EU funding was spent over a seven-year period whereas the level reached in 2013 was close to 34 percent, which means good prospects until 2016. I would add that 20 percent of EU social funds for the period of 2014 to 2020 will be directed mainly for the social integration of Roma.

But the suspicion remains that Romania wants to get rid of its Roma population…

I totally disagree. As I said, we are making huge efforts aimed at social inclusion for the Roma population. I admit that there is still a lot to be done. The key factors here are education and a change of mentality, be it from the majority or the minority. Getting their kids to go to school requires a lot of persuasion and dialogue. Granting social welfare has to be linked with sending kids to school.

How do you react to the paranoia hyped by German and UK tabloids about poverty immigrants and welfare tourists coming from your country?

Freedom of movement for European citizens is a fundamental principle of the EU. Using phrases like “poverty migration” is not appropriate. Poverty or wealth are not criteria for the freedom of movement. Of course, where misuse of social welfare can be proven, some individuals may have to bear the consequences. But you can’t blame a whole group across the board – “pauschal”, as they say in German.

Most Germans and Romanians say that Roma don’t want to integrate. But Benjamin Marx’s project in Neukölln has proven that Roma integration can work and even make economic sense. Mr. Marx has been invited to Romania to see the possibility of developing similar projects in the country. He’s on the right track.

Yet you have never visited the project. Why not?

My collaborators have visited the project. I personally have talked to Marx and strongly encouraged him to visit Romania.

Marx went to Romania this January for talks with Prime Minister Victor Ponta to seek business partners for a Roma integration project in the country. In 2013, Ponta already cancelled their first meeting at the last minute. This time, he cancelled again because of a snowstorm…

Indeed, Romania faced a heavy snowstorm in the second half of January, but I will take care of this matter so that such talks take place as soon as possible. The Romanian government is actually financing a similar project in the Bucharest suburb of Ferentari.

Marx has put forward German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier to be the patron of his Roma integration project in Romania. Steinmeier is a vocal supporter of Marx’s integration work…

I am pretty sure that my foreign minister will also be ready to join in such an endeavour.

Originally published in issue #125, March 2014.