EU urges France not to mix Roma issue with Schengen

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Current tensions over the repatriation of hundreds of Roma from France to Romania should have no repercussions for Bucharest and Sofia's ambitions to join Schengen, the border-free European area, a European Commission spokesperson said yesterday (23 August.)

Romania and Bulgaria plan to enter the Schengen area in March 2011. However, French State Secretary Pierre Lellouche hinted at the possible postponement of this decision if Bucharest fails to better integrate their Roma community, the French and the Romanian press reported.

Romania targeted

Romanian daily Romania Libera carried the headline 'Romania to stay out of Schengen due to Roma'. Lellouche is quoted as saying that Romania cannot be allowed to join the border-less EU area if it benefits from 20 billion euros from the EU budget for the period 2007-2013, but does nothing for the social inclusion of Roma.

"There are two-and-a-half million Roma in Romania and it is Romania's responsibility to integrate them. It's not France that should integrate Romanian Roma," Lellouche reportedly said. Officially there are 535,000 Roma in Romania.

Realitatea TV quotes Lellouche as saying that he has twice been to Romania, where the prime minister had assured him that he would appoint a state secretary responsible for the integration of the country's Roma minority, hinting that the promise had not been kept.

But Romanian Prime Minister Emil Boc said Romania in fact had such a state secretary – responsible for Roma integration – in the Ministry of Labour, namely Valentin Mocanu. It was also announced that Mocanu will visit Paris on 25-26 August and meet French officials.

Leonard Orban, the former Romanian EU commissioner, now counsellor to his country's President Traian Basescu, described Lellouche's statements as "worrying" and admitted that his country's relations with France had become "tense" (EURACTIV 23/08/10).

Commission reacts

Asked by EURACTIV whether the EU executive was comfortable with France's threats not to give the green light to the EU members' accession to Schengen due to the Roma stand-off, a Commission spokesperson said the two issues were unrelated.

There is nothing in the Schengen agreement regarding Roma integration, said Matthew Newman, spokesperson for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship Commissioner Viviane Reding.

"The integration of minorities is not part of the Schengen acquis, evaluated in the context of lifting internal border controls, issuing visas, police cooperation, readiness to connect and use the Schengen Information System and data protection," Newman said.

Indeed, the obligations that Bulgaria and Romania have to undertake to join the Schengen border-less area, as in previous accessions, concern the reliability of land and air borders, and data protection related to the use of a common passenger database known as the Schengen Information System, or SIS.

Bulgarian tactics

Bulgaria remained remarkably silent over the Roma expulsions when the first group of 13 Bulgarian Roma arrived in Sofia late on Friday. It should also be noted that France did not mention postponing Bulgaria's accession to Schengen.

Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, who in a former government was chief secretary of the Interior Ministry and holds the rank of police general, is known to attach the utmost importancey to his country joining Schengen in early 2011.

Last June, coinciding with the 25th anniversary of the Schengen Agreement, which provides for the gradual abolition of frontier checks at common borders between EU countries, the European Parliament voted to allow Sofia and Bucharest to join SIS (EURACTIV 14/06/10).

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 currently expelling large numbers of them in groups (EURACTIV 19/08/10).

President Nicolas Sarkozy's crackdown on Roma and Gypsy communities has damaged France's reputation and left "a stain of shame" on the nation's flag, Dominique de Villepin, a former French prime minister, stated yesterday (23 August).

"There is today a stain of shame on our flag," Dominique de Villepin wrote in an opinion piece in Le Monde newspaper, in which he described the crackdown combined with Sarkozy's tough new law-and-order stance a "national indignity".

"If there was any doubt, all one needs to do is read the foreign press, from the United States to India via the European newspapers, to measure the alarm sparked by the unrecognisable face of the country of human rights," he wrote.

"All one needs to do is to listen to the voices that are being raised at the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination to condemn the upsurge in racism and xenophobia," said Villepin, a bitter rival of Sarkozy.

French centrist politician François Bayrou, leader of the MODEM party, said it was "dangerous" to take aim at an entire community such as the Roma. He appealed to President Sarkozy to evaluate the costs of such as policy for France.

Quoted by L'Express, Bayrou said that the role of those in power was not to do "what pleases" the majority of the people, but what is right and what holds the people together.  

Bulgarian opposition socialist party BSP said it was unacceptable to link the Roma issue to the country's accession to Schengen, the Bulgarian press reported.

A party spokesperson was quoted as saying that it was still unclear on what grounds as to which the French authorities were repatriating Roma.

35-40% of the Bulgarian Roma are integrated in a social, economic and cultural manner and their incomes are not lower than the national average, the Bulgarian socialists also said.

Father Arthur Hervet, a priest in the northern French city of Lille, said on Sunday that the Roma community "has been subjected to war" for three years. He told reporters after mass that he was praying for President Nicolas Sarkozy to have a heart attack, though he later said he regretted making such a strong remark.

Lille Bishop Laurent Ulrich distanced himself from the priest's words, but he said that the situation of the Roma in France "arouses the conscience of many Christians".

Christophe Dufour, archbishop of Aix-en-Provence and Arles in southern France also criticised the government on Sunday after witnessing the dismantling of a camp.

Schengen is a village at the border between Luxembourg, France and Germany, where on 14 June 1985 an agreement to gradually abolish checks at common borders was signed between those countries, the Netherlands and Belgium.

Gradually, the process was taken further and in 1995 border controls were abolished between Belgium, Germany, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Spain and Portugal.

Today the Schengen border-free zone consists of 25 Schengen member states: EU countries Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Finland, Germany, Greece, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia, as well as the three associated non-EU countries, Norway, Iceland and Switzerland.

The UK and Ireland decided to stay outside the Schengen area.

Bulgaria, Romania and Cyprus only partially apply the Schengen acquis at the moment and checks are therefore still carried out at the borders with those three member states.

  • March 2011: Bulgaria, Romania plan to join Schengen border-less area.

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