EU’s Reding loses patience with France on Roma

Viviane Reding Picnik_0.jpg

Viviane Reding, vice-president of the European Commission responsible for justice and fundamental rights, announced today (14 September) that she will launch a legal procedure against France for discriminating against the Roma. The way Paris has managed the issue is "a disgrace," said Reding in a rare loss of temper.

Reding's announcement, made during the Commission's regular midday press briefing, was prompted by a 'circular letter' from the French administration instructing local authorities to single out the Roma community in the government's drive to expel residents staying in France illegally.

The letter, dated 5 August and published by the French media, is signed by the director of cabinet for the interior minister.

The document repeatedly mentions that "the evacuation of illegal campsites" should be targeted at the Roma "as a priority".

Reding's address also represents a response to statements made yesterday (13 September) by French European Affairs Minister Pierre Lellouche, who appeared to reject the role of the Commission as the guardian of the EU treaties.

Answering a question from EURACTIV, Lellouche said: "For me, who has been elected in my country, the guardian of the Treaties is the French citizens that have ratified it, through their representatives, after having rejected the European Constitution" (EURACTIV 14/09/10).

In response, Commission Vice-President Reding lashed out at Lellouche for having questioned the role of the Commission as guardian of the Treaty. "The European Commission's role as guardian of the Treaty is one of the foundations of the European Union," the commissioner stressed. "A Union that has gathered together not by force, but by the respect of the rule of law, agreed upon by all member states, including by France," she hastened to add.

'This is a disgrace'

Reding explained that she had held a formal meeting with Lellouche and Immigration Minister Eric Besson on 31 August, during which both had assured her that specific ethnic groups had not been targeted in France (EURACTIV 01/09/10). Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmström was also present at the meeting, Reding said.

"I can only express my deepest regrets that the political assurances of two French ministers, officially mandated to discuss this matter with the European Commission, are now openly contradicted by an administrative circular, issued by the same government," Reding said.

"This is not a minor offence in a situation of this importance. After eleven years of experience with the Commission, I go even further: this is a disgrace," Reding stressed.

"Discrimination on the base of ethnic origin or race has no place in Europe. It is incompatible with the values on which the European Union is founded."

'Enough is enough'

Reding, who was reading her speech, said she will have to open an infringement procedure in order to bring France in line with EU law. If used, this would be a novelty in the field of violation of fundamental rights.

"I am personally convinced that the Commission will have no choice but to initiate infringement procedures against France on two grounds. First for a discriminatory application of the Free Movement Directive, and second […] for lack of transposition of the procedural and substantive guarantees under the Free Movement Directive."

The commissioner said she will give the French authorities the right to submit comments "in the course of the next days".

"But I make it very clear my patience is wearing thin: enough is enough," she stated.

Asked if the French authorities had submitted the 'Circular Letter' to the Commission for consultation, she said: "A very clear answer to this question: No, we have never received officially the Circular of 5 August."

Asked about the timing of the decision to start an infringement procedure, Reding answered: "I intend to recommend to [Commission] President [José Manuel] Barroso a fast-track infringement procedure, so that we lose no time. And I expect the College of Commissioners to be able to take a decision within the next two weeks."

France's Foreign Ministry expressed its ''astonishment'' over the critical statement by Commissioner Reding and attempted to play down the controversy surrounding France's recent Roma expulsions.

''We learned of Ms. Reding's declaration with astonishment. We do not think that this type of statement will help improve the situation of the Roma, who are at the heart of our concerns and our actions," ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said on Tuesday, quoted by AFP.

''It is not the moment for controversy or this kind of statement. It is the moment to work for the good of the Roma population. It is with this spirit and objective that we are working closely with the authorities in Bucharest, something that we want to agree to carry out with our Romanian partners and the European Commission,'' he added.

"The reaction of Commissioner Reading is late for a lot of people affected by the French government's actions: too late", said Socialists & Democrats group leader Martin Schulz.

"We take note that this commissioner last week in Strasbourg strongly defended the French government, when for the vast majority of people in the European Parliament, what she is now recognising was quite clear."

"We welcome Ms. Reding's change of position but a lot of questions remain open on the way the Commission has handled this case."

Reacting to the Commission's shift in approach, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, co-president of the Greens/EFA group in the European Parliament, said:

"We welcome the move by the European Commission to explicitly criticise the ongoing Roma expulsions by France, which is certainly better late than never. It is also a welcome follow-up to the strong resolution adopted by the European Parliament last week. However, the Commission must follow this criticism up with immediate legal action against all those member states with anti-Roma policies."

"The commissioner has indicated the Commission will launch an infringement procedure if the French authorities fail to give a swift and satisfactory response to the Commission. There can only be one satisfactory response and that is an immediate halt to all deportations. France has had weeks to give this response: enough was enough a long time ago. Every day of inaction represents a further day in which France can continue with its disgraceful and discriminatory policies against the Roma, which clearly contravene basic EU law." 

"The Commission must launch its infringement procedure now against France and all other member states with policies blatantly infringing the rights of minorities," Cohn-Bendit concluded.

The liberal ALDE group welcomed the statement by Commissioner Reding. ALDE group president Guy Verhofstadt stated:

"In response to our concerns on the situation of Roma in France, Europe is finally proving its worth by not ignoring xenophobic, discriminatory, and nationalist policies perpetrated by member states. We welcome Commissioner Reding's action announced today to bring fast-track infringement proceedings against France. This confirms that we were right and it must be a warning to any member state that the EU does not ignore or compromise on breaches of European fundamental rights."

French GUE/NGL (European Left/Nordic Green Left) MEP Marie-Christine Vergiat described Commissioner Reding's condemnation as "well overdue" after "the Commission seemed to hesitate" and described French ministers' comments as "a disgrace".

"Reding has decided not to wait for the legal analysis of the Commission services and is convinced that the body should initiate two infringement proceedings […] duly noted and acknowledged," she said.

The European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) pointed out in a statement that discriminatory remarks and measures "run counter to the European Union's Charter of Fundamental Rights and the Treaty of Lisbon" and expressed support for the resolution adopted by the European Parliament calling for "the immediate cessation of the expulsions of Roma".

ETUC called for unity in responding to the plight of the Roma, however, saying there must be "a European response to the Roma issue […] it is the responsibility of Member States and the EU to promote the integration of all minorities".

"Reding's courageous stance against France inspires new confidence that the EU's new human rights architecture may fulfill its promise," Benjamin Ward, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.

"Reding's forceful statement comes not a moment too soon," he said. "The French government needs to heed the calls from Brussels and halt this abusive policy," which he said includes "intimidation by law enforcement personnel and the confiscation of identity papers to prevent individuals from changing their minds" with regard to the deportations.

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.

  • Commission to come up with final analysis on France's handling of Roma expulsions by end-September.

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