I would like to warmly thank Eurochild and Hopes and Homes for Children for the kind invitation to participate in this annual Conference.
You know, I was born in this city, in Bucharest, and I feel really honoured to be here today, as the new European Commissioner for Regional Policy.
I feel that, if I can be here today, in this capacity, it is because my family and my community decided some time ago to look after me; to provide me with the care I needed to develop and grow up.
The times I grew up in were harsh times, but my father, Traian Crețu and my mother, Verginia Crețu, their affection and the dedication of all of my teachers made up for what we lacked in material comfort.
So, I was a lucky girl. And now, as a woman, I continue to be lucky.
But other children were not so lucky. They were not offered the same opportunities that most of us here, in this room, have enjoyed.
And unfortunately, nowadays lots of children still do not have the opportunities they deserve to do well in school, enjoy good health and realise their full potential later in life.
Ladies and gentlemen, figures leave no room for nuances: one child in four in the European Union is today at risk of poverty or social exclusion.
Let me say this again: One child in four. That's a chilling figure indeed. Not to mention the even more serious situation of specific groups, in particular of Roma people.
As you are already very well aware, the economic and financial crisis is not helping to improve this situation.
Under these conditions, the work of organisations like Eurochild and its member organisations, the engagement of people like you, is simply invaluable. Priceless.
Let me take this opportunity to thank you and to congratulate you for your tireless work, often anonymous and unfortunately not always recognised.
In this respect, this conference has been a good occasion to take stock of your experience, and identify areas where exchanges could be helpful for practitioners on the ground.
Interesting contributions and discussions have been held on cross-cutting issues, like evaluation, social return on investment and public-private partnerships and on areas of action: family support, alternative care, early years education and care, and child participation.
Now it is time to go back to your home places and capitalise the experience you have shared during these three days.
What can the European Funds do to support you on this?
The good news is that there is funding available for supporting projects in the field of social inclusion and the fight against poverty and discrimination: over 30 billion euros for the next 7 years, according to the programmes we are currently discussing with the 28 Member States.
We have two top priorities for funding:
On the one hand, we support investment in child care and education infrastructure. On the other hand, we strongly support the transition from institutional care for children to community-based and family-based care.
Regarding investment in child care and education infrastructure: it is terrible to see that children who are not yet born, are already in competition with each other for childcare facilities. Even before they are born!
So parents have to enter long queues, as soon as they start expecting a child.
In most cases, they have to improvise a solution, which often consists on transferring the burden to the grand-parents… or opting for a part time job. Part time job that often involves the female side of the household…
And thus the cycle of unfairness and poverty is passed on from one generation to another.
Therefore, there is a great need, throughout all countries of the EU, to make available new childcare infrastructure. And for this you can count on the support from our Funds.
But there is something even more important than supporting this infrastructure: we must encourage, to the full extent of our possibilities, transition from institutional care, to community-based and family-based care.
Let me say it clearly and loudly: there is no alternative. There is no other option.
We all have in mind concrete examples of painful experiences of children, who missed their childhood in care institutions.
This a very emotional topic for me, because I am part of a generation of Romanians who was haunted by the images released 25 years ago of abandoned or disabled children held in unspeakable conditions in state institutions.
We all felt ashamed, and angry, and determined to put an end to it.
And today I am happy to say that Romania has made a lot of progress since then, and I am very grateful to the organisations like Hope and Homes for Children and many others who have worked tirelessly to make these institutions a thing of the past.
No much time ago, institutions like these were considered to be the best way for taking care of vulnerable children.
But, according to sound scientific research in children's early development, placing very young children in these institutions can negatively affect their brain development, and have life-long consequences on their emotional well-being and behaviour.
Conversely, offering these children a community and a family, who take care of them, giving them the affection and the love they need, as was the case for you and me… this is a priceless gift that is at hand. At our hand.
Ladies and gentlemen, it is definitely time to take decisive action.
What do we need now from you, so that our Funds can arrive on the ground? On our side, we are finalising the programmes that lay down the best possible conditions for support.
On your side, we absolutely need that you present good projects, in your own field of expertise: welfare of children.
We only need you to do what you are already very good at doing: supporting public authorities in taking care of children.
The European Commission has already issued a number of Regulations to make this possible.
One of our major aims has been to improve the way public authorities can capitalise your action.
For this, we have set up a Code of Conduct on Partnership, which gives a number of hints and ideas, so that public authorities can fully take advantage of your expertise and your commitment.
I would like that you take these words, both as an acknowledgement for your action and as an encouragement to intensify your efforts for the benefit of our most vulnerable fellow citizens.
At the beginning of this week, I had the privilege to listen to a historic address that His Holiness Pope Francis gave at the European Parliament in Strasbourg.
I was deeply moved by the impassionate plea of the Holy Father, who reminded us of our fundamental duty, that of preserving human dignity by caring for the week, for the poor, for the abandoned, for the lonely.
Ladies and gentlemen, I want to thank you again for taking this fundamental duty seriously, for attending to the most vulnerable members of our society, and let me assure you that you will always have in me a partner and a friend.