When EU social affairs commissioner Laszlo Andor went to Bucharest last week, he was in the mood for spending money. The Hungarian's job means that he can offer funds to benefit the poor and the unemployed, the excluded and uneducated.
The Roma are unfortunate enough to be well represented in each of these categories but the Romanian government has hardly tapped into the available money. For this reason, Mr Andor boarded a plane to Bucharest to discover why the funding source was not being tapped.
Street scene in Bucharest neighbourhood with high percentage of Roma inhabitants (Photo: Martina Herzog)
At the end of a two day conference and a string of political meetings, the exasperation of some of the people present in the Brussels delegation was palpable. The Romanian government is neither capable nor willing to 'absorb' the funds – to use the money for its intended purpose - and it is the Roma who will continue to bear the brunt of that failure.
Roma have been hit harder by poverty and exclusion in Romania than in the rest of Europe. Heavy industry all across Eastern Europe collapsed with the fall of the iron curtain at the end of the 1980s and left many poorly qualified Roma unemployed. They became "victims of the post-communist transition" as Mr Andor describes it.
Accompanying the Brussels entourage to schools in the outskirts of Bucharest, we received just an inkling of the situation on the ground, but a disturbing one nevertheless. One of the institutions presented to us was clearly a model project complete with potted flowers on polished floors and a sports ground full of by children practising gymnastics in cheery unison.
But there is another school, just a kilometre away, where horse carts and cars share dusty roads lined with deep ditches. Just seven percent of pupils at the first school are Roma compared to 96 percent at the second. With high illiteracy rates among the Roma population, these children do not receive the same parental help with their homework and many leave school early.
The two schools have been designated as partners in a project that might start next year, but local politicians and Roma activists are sceptical about it.
"If you don't prepare that well, you might do more harm than good," said Marian Mandache of Roma NGO Romani Criss. He hopes that intercultural activities such as sports and cinema visits will pave the way for cooperation, but in the worst-case scenario there will be no integration and more well-to-do parents will remove their children from school.
There are even worse forms of segregation than geographical distance. Mr Mandache described a school for disabled children in Sibiu county, which is almost exclusively attended by Roma. When these children are first sent to school at the age of seven, the course of a lifetime is already set for many of them; they simply do not catch up with others.
But there are beacons of hope even among the least privileged. Rebeca Florescu left school at 16, married soon after and had the first of two children just a year later. Twelve years on, she has received start-up funding from a trade union and runs her own cleaning business. She beamed with joy and pride as she told her story and yet, asked if she knew of other encouraging examples, she admitted: "Among my friends, I am the only one in a regular job."
No less committed but with an unmistakable trace of sarcasm, Valeriu Nicolae discussed his people's plight. With a successful private business career, he now invests in organising leisure activities and homework help for a group of students, as well as lobbying for Roma rights at the Romanian think-tank Policy Centre for Roma and Minorities.
Mr Nicolae is used to being seen as an exception. He said that those who become successful often deny their roots and that positive stories do not make it into the papers. Even politicians ready to do something for gypsies risk losing votes. "Being a Roma is like being gay," he said.
Romanian politicians prefer to take the easy route around the mess of social, economic and cultural problems that entangle the Roma, according to a delegate from the Andor mission. Standards in the Romanian administration are "incredibly low", with officials neither willing nor capable to apply for EU money despite offers to train them.
"I wouldn't be astonished if they lost billions - we let them join the EU too early," said an Andor aide.
€3.7 billion has been allotted to Romania until 2013 from the European Social Fund (ESF) alone. The country could receive even more funding rural development and agriculture initiatives but the government has not accessed the money. Less than 14 percent has been spent so far even though Romanian co-financing is at the minimum rate of 15 percent and European credits are readily available.
The EU Commission can only offer its help; it is up to Romanian politicians to act. Mr Andor stressed this point, admitting that the initial situation is not favourable, but in an attempt to grin and bear it he added: "Things can only get better."