Recent tensions between France, the European Commission and the European Parliament over the Roma expulsions carried out by the French authorities this summer are likely to mar today's EU summit, which was supposed to discuss the Union's common foreign policy.
The European Union finds itself in an unprecedented institutional crisis, with a founding member of the Union openly defying the European institutions.
Last week, the European Parliament condemned the expulsions of Roma from France over the last month (EURACTIV 09/09/10), and on Tuesday (14 September), the Commission issued a stern warning, saying that it might launch a legal procedure against France (EURACTIV 14/09/10).
In response, France said the Parliament had overstepped its prerogatives, and described the statements made on Tuesday by Vivian Reding, the Commission vice-president responsible for fundamental rights, as absolutely scandalous.
One particularly hard-hitting sentence used by Reding gave Paris grounds to cry foul. "This is a situation I had thought Europe would not have to witness again after the Second World War," Reding said at the beginning of her statement.
Although she did not directly compare the dismantling of Roma camps and the expulsions with well-known events during World War II, French politicians were quick to denounce her for having compared today's handling of the Roma issue by France with deportations during the Nazi occupation.
Reding apologised for the misplaced phrase, but French President Nicolas Sarkozy later raised eyebrows for reportedly saying during a dinner with his political party, UMP, that it would be no problem if Luxembourg wanted to take some Roma too.
Viviane Reding is from Luxembourg, but commissioners as a rule do not represent their country.
"For Nicolas Sarkozy to amalgamate the commissioner's nationality and Luxembourg is malevolent. She was not talking for Luxembourg and did not take instructions from Luxembourg," said Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn.
Commission President José Manuel Barroso stood by his colleague, although a spokesperson for the EU executive indicated that his approach was calmer than Reding's.
A pre-summit meeting of the European People's Party (EPP) held yesterday evening (15 September) brought together most of the actors in the conflict: Sarkozy, Barroso, Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, Romanian President Traian Basescu and Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov.
Romania and Bulgaria, the countries of origin of the Roma being expelled from France, are criticised for not doing much to integrate this minority. France even accused Romania of wanting to get rid of its Roma (EURACTIV 01/09/10).
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi did not attend the pre-summit, as a delay of his plane was announced. Last year, Italy took discriminatory measures against Roma by taking their fingerprints. The move was condemned by the Council of Europe (EURACTIV 30/06/10), but the EU remained silent.
This year, Italian Interior Minister Roberto Maroni applauded France for expelling its Roma and said he will ask the European Commission to endorse a similar plan for Italy (EURACTIV 23/08/10).
Germany criticised Reding's remarks on World War II, but approved the essence of her statement. A spokesperson said Berlin wants the freedom of movement principle to be respected and that there should be no discrimination on the basis of ethnic origin.
EPP leaders appeared to agree that there was a need to harmonise positions and bring some appeasement to the summit itself. The message was that if the Roma issue were to gain prominence at the summit table, then the discussion should turn to how to help Europe's biggest minority to integrate in societies.