"If I am not mistaken, elections are in the air in France. Whenever in this country [the government] doesn’t want to talk about important things like the budget or debt, they talk about the Roma," Reding said yesterday (25 September) on France Info radio station.
France will hold municipal elections on 22 and 30 March 2014 and the political class is already preparing for battle (see background).
Reding, the commissioner in charge of justice and fundamental rights, was reacting to a recurring debate on the situation of Roma in France. Controversy was revived again this week by Valls, a flamboyant Socialist politician, who denounced the inability of the minority to integrate into French society.
"Roma should not remain in France," he said. The minister added that Roma "should return to their country and integrate there", referring to Romania and Bulgaria, from where the majority of Roma in France originate.
But Reding retorted: "We have European rules that were signed by France, the rules on the free movement of EU citizens. And we are not speaking about Roma, but about individuals. Only upon a decision by a judge they can be repatriated, if they did something that goes against the laws of the State in question," she said.
A Commission spokesperson confirmed that the EU executive intends to make sure that France abides by its commitments.
“If these principles enshrined in the Treaties are not met, the Commission will use all means at its disposal to sanction such violations," spokesperson Olivier Bailly stated.
Reding also recalled that €50 billion had been made available by the EU to support the inclusion of Roma.
"There are fifty billion euros that are available and which are not used. I wonder why," said Reding, without specifying that this figure is for the whole of Europe, and more specifically their countries of origin. She added: "France has signed a national strategy for Roma integration. But money is not arriving where it should arrive, in the local authorities, with the mayors, where the problems happen."
This is not the first time that the French attitude towards the Roma has been criticised by the Commission. Already in 2010 under Nicolas Sarkozy's, Reding threatened France with sanctions, infuriating the French President.
Still, it is obvious that the statements by Valls, made a few months the municipal elections of March 2014, reflect the concerns of many mayors of French towns, who want to dismantle Roma camps. In recent weeks, several camps were dismantled in France, from Lille, Lyon or La Courneuve near Paris.
But the Roma rhetoric of Valls has also caused a political uproar. "Mr Valls’ statements reflect the policy of the ostrich and deny the extreme complexity of the situation of these populations in Europe," railed Jean-Luc Bennahmias, MEP and vice-president of Modem, the French liberal party.
Beyond the controversy over the integration of the Roma minority, the Commission pointed to a "voluntary or involuntary" confusion in the European rules made by politicians in France.
So far, transitional provisions allowed the EU countries to delay opening their labour markets to Bulgarian and Romanian nationals for a maximum period of seven years from the accession of these countries to the EU in 2008.
Many countries lifted those restrictions long ago, but France will keep them until the deadline laid out in the treaties, 1 January 2014.
However, some politicians such as Jean-François Copé, president of Sarkozy’s Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), agitate this date as a red cloth, equating it to the entry of Romania and Bulgaria into the Schengen area. The two issues however are completely unrelated. Schengen accession requires unanimity among the EU members, and several countries such as Germany and the Netherlands oppose the inclusion of Bulgaria and Romania.
"The fact that these two countries are not part of the Schengen area does not prevent the free movement of Romanian and Bulgarians within the Union," Bailly said.
Bulgarian and Romanian nationals may travel freely to the rest of the EU but they need to show a passport or a national identity card when entering the Schengen space.