Inter-institutional tensions overshadow EU summit

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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.

Family scandal?

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.

European Parliament President Jerzy Buzek, quizzed repeatedly by the press on the Roma issue following his speech to the Council, played down the tensions surrounding the summit and refused to criticise France, describing the problem as "the responsibility of the whole EU".

"It is not a problem of Roma only and it is not only a problem of France. It is also in other countries. […] It is a very deep and serious problem for the EU as a whole and we should treat it as such," he said.

Asked by EURACTIV whether the EPP could solve the problem given that he himself, José Manuel Barroso, Nicolas Sarkozy, Viviane Reding and the Bulgarian and Romanian leaders are all affiliated to it, Buzek replied that it was not a question for one political party, but for all of Europe and its citizens.

''I feel responsible, as any European politician should. I do not divide the EU by member state or any political group. This is a very serious problem – people are in poverty and are excluded from society," he said.

Asked about France questioning the right of the Parliament and Commission to get involved in the issue, Buzek replied that "solving problems with less tension is always better" and "inflammatory rhetoric’" must be avoided.

"The Commission is the guardian of the treaties: much the better that it is looking into the case. It is a good signal – that the Community level works and that we address problems together," he added. 

The Parliament president, who asked to be questioned on economic governance or external relations, defended his decision not to refer to the Roma expulsions in his address to the Council, saying it was not on the agenda and would not be "polite" for his audience.

Asked why he had not criticised France, Buzek responded: "I am very surprised by this question. I have said several times that the Commission is the guardian of the treaties and its starting this procedure is the best possible solution. What more can I add?"

 

According to the European Commission, the Roma are the EU's largest ethnic minority, and trace their origins to medieval India. There are many Roma subgroups living in Europe. Since recently, the Commission puts the number of Roma in Europe at 11 million.

Current census statistics state that 535,000 Roma live in Romania, 370,000 in Bulgaria, 205,000 in Hungary, 89,000 in Slovakia and 108,000 in Serbia. Some 200,000 Roma are estimated to live in the Czech Republic, while the same number are estimated to reside in Greece and an estimated 500,000 are in Turkey.

Many Roma from Eastern Europe moved to the West following the EU's enlargement, creating tensions, particularly in Italy (EURACTIV 30/06/09). An estimated 15,000 Roma from Romania and Bulgaria live in France. The French government is presently expelling large numbers of them in groups (EURACTIV 19/08/10).

France is insisting that it measures are not discriminatory and are intended to protect the security of its citizens and public order.

 

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