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March 20, 2013

Germany Threatens to Veto Passport-Free Travel for Bulgaria, Romania

by Michael Scaturro

Germany and the European Union's executive commission are at odds over plans to widen a passport-free travel accord in Europe known as the Schengen Agreement.  Bulgaria and Romania have asked to join the agreement, winning support from Austria.  But Germany has threatened to veto the deal, saying it fears that members of the Roma (gypsy) communities from Bulgaria and Romania will stream into Germany and abuse the welfare system. 

At Rixdorf Elementary School in Berlin, the vaccination program is open to everyone, but borough superintendent Franziska Giffey says it is primarily targeted towards Roma children who have just arrived in Germany and have never been vaccinated.

"We have almost 100 kids, meanwhile, and we will continue this action to make a lot of kids vaccinated," Giffey says. "The parents are very willing to do this, and they come here, and they get advice, and they agree with this action, and the kids get this normal, basic vaccination, which normally small babies would get."

About 93 percent of students in the school are from migrant backgrounds -- with most speaking Turkish, Arabic, or Polish at home.  New to the mix are youngsters from Bulgaria and Romania.  About 800 of them are now part of the district's student population, up 30 percent from the last school year.  Teachers here say they do not ask the children whether they are Roma, but some of the parents have volunteered this information -- while others are reluctant to talk about it, fearing discrimination.

And their fears may be justified.  While school officials here welcome the children, Giffey said at a press conference Tuesday that some locals have reacted angrily.

Giffey says that after the vaccination program was made public, locals sent her critical letters accusing her of wasting taxpayer money.  They wanted her to not help the Roma children in the hopes that these families would leave Berlin.  But Giffey says these families are coming here for a better life -- and that it is their right to do so as European Union citizens.

It could be that anti-Roma voices are taking their cues from Germany's interior minister, Hans-Peter Friedrich, a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative coalition government.  German newspapers have accused him of combining the issue of expanding the 26-member Schengen -- essentially Europe's outermost border -- with legal migration of EU citizens from Romania and Bulgaria.

Cordula Simon manages Berlin's relationship with the EU.  She says Germany's conservative parties are trying to score political points off the Roma issue ahead of elections later this year.

"In this year, we will elect a new federal government.  It's a political thing," Simon says. "If you ask people at the grassroots level who are dealing with the issue in Duisburg, Dortmund, and Berlin-Neukölln, they would tell you a different opinion -- that we can act with the people."

Simon says the Roma children speak German fluently within three months of arriving in schools.  What's more, their parents are pushing them to excel and eagerly bringing their children to events like the vaccination program.  Simon says Germany, which is facing a demographic crisis, must invest in its immigrant children if it is to have a future.

"We need this coming to Berlin -- not just the academics, who often come without children," Simon says. "We also need families with children that are brought up in the system."

But Germany's conservative parties are likely to disagree -- at least until after the elections.