Thursday, September 9, 2010
THE EUROPEAN COMMISSION
BY Ian Traynor in Brussels
Tuesday 7 September 2010
José Manuel Barroso said in remarks indirectly aimed at France's deportation of Gypsy families that racism and xenophobia had no place in Europe. The EU executive today backed away from a confrontation with France over President Nicolas Sarkozy's anti-Gypsy campaign, widely viewed as breaking European law and human rights rules.
In his first annual "state of the union" address, billed as a major keynote speech to rank alongside that of the US president, José Manuel Barroso, president of the European commission, delivered veiled criticism for the first time of the French government's deportation of hundreds of Roma families in recent weeks.
He told the European parliament in Strasbourg that the rights of the EU's biggest ethnic minority – the 12 million-strong Roma community – had to be protected and warned European leaders to steer clear of the racism and discrimination of the past.
But Barroso failed to mention France explicitly and at a meeting with Sarkozy in Paris yesterday evening, according to officials in Brussels, he agreed to avoid turning the expulsion of thousands of Roma or Gypsies from France into "a controversy".
Liberals, Greens and social democratic MEPs last night accused the commission of a whitewash, while Sarkozy's parliamentary allies in the centre-right European People's party nervously sought to defeat a parliamentary resolution denouncing French government "racism".
The commission is the guardian of the EU treaties and has to rule on whether any of the 27 governments in the union are breaking European law.
Viviane Reding, the commissioner for justice and fundamental rights who has held several rounds of talks with the French authorities and has raised questions about the treatment of the Roma, stunned MEPs by praising Paris and ducking the key issue of whether the Sarkozy government was flouting the law.
She told the parliament in Strasbourg that the commission was taking "a clear but balanced position on the matter" and that she had received "very positive" signals from the French government. She was repeatedly heckled during her speech.
"It is so important that French [immigration] minister Eric Besson assured us publicly that the French authorities would treat all citizens in the same way and that there was no targeted action against the Roma or any other group and that the French authorities would do their best to act scrupulously in line with EU law. I see this insurance given by Minister Besson as a very positive development," she said.
Her remarks appeared to relate to the future conduct of the French authorities and not to the measures they have taken since July when Sarkozy announced his crackdown on Gypsy immigrants – EU citizens – from Romania and Bulgaria.
Since July the French have demolished scores of Gypsy encampments and expelled nearly 1,000 Roma, attracting strong criticism from the Vatican, the United Nations, human rights groups and leading opposition figures in France. The Sarkozy policy has also split his own cabinet but has been cheered by the extreme right across Europe.
"The commission has let the French off the hook. It has failed to do its job and it is setting a precedent for other countries," said Claude Moraes, a Labour MEP on the parliament's civil liberties committee. "France's actions are illegal – pure and simple. It is a sad indictment of this commission that it has failed to stand up for the rule of law in the face of a large EU member state. President Sarkozy must be made accountable for this racist policy. The European commission should be using all the tools available to bring France into line with EU law."
Last week, Reding and two other European commissioners raised strong doubts about the French government's conduct but delayed any conclusive verdict on the Sarkozy policy. She had been expected to go much further yesterday.
Barroso has been repeatedly charged with failing to stand up to the big EU member states when it matters. The decision to back down over the Roma row reinforced those views.
"It is common knowledge that France is contravening EU law. The European commission must stop sitting on its hands. It must publish its initial analysis," said Hélène Fautre, a French Green MEP.
The commissioners raised doubts about the French conduct in an internal document last week which it refuses to publish.
In his speech, Barroso said EU "governments must respect human rights, including those of minorities. Racism and xenophobia have no place in Europe. On such sensitive issues, when a problem arises, we must all act with responsibility. I make a strong appeal not to reawaken the ghosts of Europe's past."
The half-hour speech, outlining his priorities for the year ahead but containing scant new initiatives, was preceded by a farcical failed attempt to prevent MEPs playing truant in Strasbourg and guarantee a full house. Parliamentary leaders abandoned a scheme to fine MEPs who did not show up after being accused of Stalinism and infantilism.
Tonight social democrats, liberals, and Greens are trying to agree on a common formula that could command a wafer-thin majority while denouncing the French. The resolution goes to a vote on Thursday. While the resolution has only verbal force, it would represent an unusual blow to French prestige, with the European parliament sitting in Strasbourg in France condemning its host government.
Pierre Lellouche, the French Europe minister, said he found "the statements by members of the European parliament about France's policy on the Roma totally excessive and unfair".
In mid-July a 22-year-old Rom or Gypsy was shot dead by police in central France, sparking a riot and the ransacking of a police station by a crowd of around 50.
President Nicolas Sarkozy promptly announced a crackdown, targeting the Roma population from the Balkans, estimated at around 15,000.
Some 300 "illegal" Gypsy encampments were to be demolished, any Roma from Bulgaria or Romania with criminal records in France were to be expelled, and others – the majority – were to be encouraged to leave "voluntarily" by signing statements in return for a flight to their native countries and 300 euros for adults and 100 euros for children.
More than 900 have been deported since Sarkozy's announcement on July 28, bringing the total this year to more than 8,000.
Other countries are encouraged. The mayor of Rome has announced plans to demolish scores of Gypsy camps. The Italian government supports a hard line. Sweden and Denmark have been quietly deporting Roma who are EU citizens. Germany is in the process of expelling 12,000 Roma from Kosovo, most whom arrived as refugees from the Kosovo war in 1999 or who were since born in Germany.
Posted by Morgan at 4:16 PM