Roma are EU citizens too, Romanian President says
Romanian President Traian Basescu on Friday (31 January) strongly defended freedom of movement within the EU, saying Roma have the same rights as other EU citizens and should not be misused for populist campaigns.
Seven years after Romania joined the EU, Basescu said that his country is still not "fully integrated" as it is waiting to be accepted in the border-free Schengen area and, sometime in 2018-2019, in the eurozone.
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"But I am happy from 1 January we are now fully integrated on the EU labour market," the President told journalists in Berlin, in reference to the lifting of labour market restrictions for Romanian and Bulgarian citizens.
Basescu criticised the campaign against so-called social tourism in Germany, led by the Bavarian Conservatives (the CSU), whose slogan for the EU elections is "who cheats is kicked out."
"First of all I reject the term migration within the EU. We are all EU citizens, there is a single market, so there is no 'migration'," he said.
Basescu noted that he understands the concerns of "some governments" - a reference also to the British government - that people from Romania and Bulgaria may abuse their welfare systems.
"But what we categorically reject is to apply some measures strictly to Romanian or Bulgarian citizens. If there are restrictions in the way social benefits are allocated, they should apply to all EU citizens in equal manner," he said.
Given that there are already EU rules in place preventing welfare abuse and that the actual numbers of people applying for social aid when they go abroad is small, Basescu said other governments should "rest assured that people coming in will not lead to a collapse of their social systems."
He admitted that there are still integration problems in Romania with the Roma minority and said that it is also part of their "cultural background" to travel, as a nomadic people.
Over 600,000 Roma live in Romania, according to official statistics. But given that almost two thirds of them have not indicated that they are Roma for fear of discrimination, the real figures are estimated to be around three million out of an overall population of 20 million.
"Of course they are very visible, they ask for money, food, they annoy people. They are perhaps more annoying than a banker who makes tens of billions disappear from a bank. Bankers don't annoy anyone, but then governments have to pay billions for them, as it was the case during the crisis," he said.
But all in all, he said, Roma remain EU citizens with the same rights as everybody else.
"When we joined the EU, there was no paragraph in our accession treaty saying that the Roma should be kept out," Basescu quipped.
With high percentages of illiteracy and school drop-out rates, education remains the main challenge in integrating the Roma, he said.
"We are ready to send teachers, trainers, close to the towns where they are settling, as long as local administrations are setting up facilities where the kids can learn how to read and write."
Basescu also noted that brain drain is a problem for Romania, with 14,000 doctors having left in the last 10 years - "a serious blow to the healthcare system, given that the cost of training a doctor is very high."
Tens of thousands of IT developers also left the country - lots of them to Germany - in the search for better jobs and wages - a trend that the government cannot stop as long as the wages are so low in Romania.
"We never accused any state for accepting these high-skilled workers. But in return, we would like it to be reciprocated when it comes to lower-skilled workers or the Roma. We could take the criticism, if at the same time we would be thanked for the money the Romanian state has invested in doctors and IT engineers," Basescu said.