France's Ambassador to Bulgaria Etienne de Poncins: EU Needs to Take Rescue Action on Roma
Interview of Novinite.com (Sofia News Agency) with outgoing France's Ambassador to Bulgaria Etienne de Poncins on the completion of His Excellency's three-year term in Sofia, and on France, the EU, and "the Roma issue."
Now that you have completed your three year term, what is the feeling with which you are leaving? What goals of yours did you manage to accomplish successfully, and what goals did you fail to achieve?
I think that on the whole I have completed my mission – which was to facilitate the transition in France's bilateral relations with Bulgaria from relations with an EU candidate country to those with a full EU member.
France has had the desire to be actively present once again in this part of the region, and the nature of our relations changed since we became two countries from one and the same family. On the one hand, this was felt during the visit of President Sarkozy to Bulgaria in October 2007, which gave a new boost to our relations. Then, this was implemented into the strategic partnership agreement signed by Bulgaria and France in 2008.
So I think that at the political level the goals that we had set have been accomplished. The relations between Bulgaria and France are so close and so friendly as never before.
You actually witnessed a rather interesting period – Bulgaria's first three years of EU membership. During that period Bulgaria had severe issues with the absorption of EU funds, corruption, and organized crime, among others. How does Bulgaria seem three years later? Does it seem more "European"?
Yes, from my point of view, Bulgaria changed. First, after it joined the EU in January 2007, there was certain relaxing – as usually happens after a runner crosses the finish line; Bulgaria lied in the grass for a while to take some rest, to put it that way. But then, a second period followed which was characterized by a realization that work must continue, especially with respect to fighting corruption and organized crime.
So the machine was started through the prodding of the European Commission, and I think that for the last few months things have been going better. Certain actions have been initiated, in particular some police operations, which are starting to bear fruit. The same goes for the reform of the judiciary, which is in progress. So I think things are going in the right direction. But there is a whole lot yet to be done.
France keeps being at the bottom of the country ranking of foreign investors in Bulgaria. Can any change be expected in that respect any time soon?
It is true that France is not among the top foreign investors in Bulgaria but it is moving up and advancing. The bilateral trade amounts to almost a billion euro annually, and almost 10 000 Bulgarians already work for French or French-Bulgarian companies. The French investors remained faithful to Bulgaria during the crisis. They are growing stronger and becoming more visible and tangible.
For example, Carrefour; Veolia will soon take over the management of Sofiyska Voda (the Sofia water supply company – editor's note). This will make the impact of French investments even more tangible. Our goals in that respect have certainly not been fully achieved but a progress can be felt with respect to the investments as well.
Bulgaria is trying to keep developing its nuclear energy, while France is a leading country in this field. At present, the Bulgarian government is desperately looking for a strategic foreign investor for the Belene Nuclear Power Plant. How come French energy companies have not shown any interest in this project?
At the beginning there was interest on part of Suez Еnvironnement. They reviewed the portfolio of the Belene NPP, and it is true that now they don't have the same interest. There are many nuclear energy projects in the world so choices must be made. Things could develop and take another course but for the time being the French nuclear energy companies have other projects.
What you have been explaining in Bulgaria with respect to the "Roma issue" is that France is not expelling an entire ethnic group but persons who violated the legislation. Yet, all persons that have been expelled under this regulation belong to one and the same ethnic group, the Roma from Bulgaria and Romania. How do you see the consequences of the Roma expulsion controversy for the EU, for France, and for the fate of the Roma in Europe?
First, I would like to remind that the number of the Bulgarian citizens who have returned remains relatively smalls. These are about a hundred people since July 1, 2010. Of these, 80% returned voluntarily. It is true that they are granted a small allowance to finance their return.
The violation that these people have committed is that they abused the right of stay, they remained in France for more than 90 days. If a person wants to stay in an EU member state for more than 90 days, they have to provide evidence of employment and income. If that is not the case, they have to go back to their country of origin. And this is precisely what happened in these cases.
Yes, it is true that the majority of these Bulgarian citizens who have been returned are of Roma origin. But I think that this has led the entire EU to realize the need to start discussions about the situation of the Roma community in all of Europe.
Here we are all unanimous that the integration of the Roma should be enhanced in their home countries first and foremost, and with the aid of EU funds. However, what is surprising here is that when one goes to these Roma-populated quarters around Bulgaria, one starts wondering where did all these money go that have been provided for the integration of the Roma. This at least leads to the realization that there should be actions, almost rescue actions in this regard.
With respect to what you just said, since apparently there is abuse of funds and other problems in both Bulgaria and Romania, as many Bulgarians and Romanians fear, should these two countries expect France to block their accession to the Schengen Agreement because of these issues?
We already made it clear that we do not see any connection between the Roma issue and the Schengen accession. These things have nothing to do with one another. Schengen means lifting of the passport border control.
The problem with the Roma is in their desire to stay for more than three months in another EU country. We stated that we are going to study Bulgaria's application to join the Schengen Area based on its own merit, according to the portfolio that we will be provided with.
Bulgaria and Romania have clearly failed to integrate the Roma – for which both countries have been suffering enormous international criticism and pressure. Yet, since the Roma are EU citizens after all, given the sensitivity of the issue, do you think France could have tried another approach, i.e. to come up with exemplary initiatives and projects on how to integrate these Roma people in question?
Well, the whole idea is not to have the population go live somewhere else. The idea is to help the Roma with Bulgarian identity become integrated in Bulgaria by improving their living conditions. Through their integration, they will contribute to the development of Bulgaria as well.
But for that to happen, there must be substantial EU funds allocated for this purpose. Now, perhaps this whole process must be centrally managed and monitored by the state so that this money can be spent for what it is intended, namely, for some emergency programs such as providing water supply, electricity, and other emergency services.
You expressed your suggestion that Bulgaria should consider appointing a minister for the Roma. As a result, you got into an argument, even a conflict with the Bulgarian President Georgi Parvanov, because he viewed your position as a "patronizing" attitude. Where do you see the solution of the Roma issues in Bulgaria with its current political environment?
I am just an observer, and I am just sharing ideas and suggestions. I have just always been convinced that when a certain group of the population has more specific problems, there should be a new state structure to handle these problems.
And it is obvious that the Roma population has specific problems. It has no elite, or at least it is not sufficient, and it does not have much of a representation in the Bulgarian Parliament.
The Roma children are not included in the Bulgarian education system to the extent that the Bulgarian kids are included. The Roma quarters in Bulgaria have special problems, this is visible.
Given all that, what comes to mind, not surprisingly, is that some kind of an administrative or political structure can be set up in order to work specially for the integration of the Roma. This is not some idea that is originally mine because it has already been applied in Romania, in Macedonia.
There has even been consideration of the idea to appoint an EU Commissioner on these issues. There have been such talks so this is my explanation about this point that I made in this context. But I am glad that my suggestion generated reactions.
The Roma issue really strained the relations between France and the European Commission. Do expect the European Commission to start an infringement procedure against France – which will be an interesting development granted that France is one of the founding and most powerful EU members?
The Commission is doing the job that it was set up to do, this is its role. It is investigating four countries, including France, with respect to the application of EU law. We are answering all of its questions, and providing all documents that are asked of us so there is an European dialogue going on at the moment. We are being asked for explanations, and we are providing them. There are no special problems at the moment.
What has been problematic are certain comparisons of this problem with events from World War II. This was particularly unpleasant for France. I explained what the French policy is, and what the figures are. After all, we are talking about a return of Bulgarians to Bulgaria. That is why some of the hints made on this topic are unacceptable to us.
It is no secret that Western Europe, including France, have serious problems with the integration of the immigrant communities. Now this EU-wide problem with the Roma has come to the fore. Does the EU have the right resources and attitudes to integrate all these groups into the "European identity"? What are the ways to achieve that?
This really is an EU-wide challenge. Europe needs fresh blood because the European nations are aging. That is why it has got to attempt to integrate these communities, who are creating similar problems in all countries.
There are a number of instruments to be used. The language qualification, the school are crucial, as is the integration on the labor market; the participation of these people in the public life on the national level; the adherence to certain key values – for example, gender equality is a crucial value for us.
Traditionally and historically, France has been much closer with Bulgaria's neighbors Romania and Serbia. The close partnership between Romania and France was reminded by Romanian President Basescu during his visit in Sofia last week. Has France started to view all countries in the Balkans equally?
This is exactly what we wanted to demonstrate in the past three years – that for us Bulgaria has become an European partner of the same proportions, without taking into account there other prerequisites. There are no big and small countries, there are only partners that are in the EU, and we should be equally close, and have equally friendly relations with them.
Actually, you saw that – even with respect to the Roma issue, if you wish – these good ties that have with Bulgaria were also visible from the understanding for our policies demonstrated by Prime Minister Boyko Borisov. These are actually the fruits of our friendship that we are now enjoying.
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