Romania should not interpret freedom of movement in the EU as a right to get rid of its Roma at the expense of other countries, Pierre Lellouche, the French state secretary for European affairs, told the press yesterday (31 August) in Brussels, triggering a strong reaction from Bucharest.
In a packed French press room in the EU Council building, where many journalists were sitting on the floor, Lellouche appeared before the Brussels press alongside Eric Besson, French minister for immigration, integration, national identity and mutually-supportive development.
Both had just come from meetings with European commissioners Viviane Reding and Cecilia Malmström to discuss the Roma controversy (see EURACTIV 27/08/10 for more information). TV footage from Euronews showed the French ministers appearing before of something that looked like a court, chaired by Reding and Malmström.
Lellouche started by lamenting that ever since Romania and Bulgaria's EU accession in 2007, in his capacity as elected representative of the Paris region he had been forced to seek local and national responses to the "immediate consequences" of the Roma arrivals.
"It's a very painful problem that I live with every day in my own electoral district," he said.
In his capacity as state secretary for European affairs, he explained that he had immediately taken up the issue at EU level. But he lamented the lack of a response from others, adding that he was the only minister to attend the European Roma Summit, held last April in Cordoba, and said he had asked the Romanian authorities himself to appoint a state secretary for Roma integration.
Waltz of numbers: how many Roma are we talking about?
"We have to deal with a problem of great magnitude. Our estimation, which is not necessarily that of all member states, is that there are 11 million Roma in Europe, of whom nine million are fully-fledged European citizens.
According to the European Commission there are 1.9 million Roma in Romania, associations speak about 2-2.5 million, and the Romanian government speaks of 500,000," Lellouche said.
According to the EU Treaties, each EU country has the duty to take care of its citizens, the French state secretary said. The treaties recognise freedom of movement, he continued, but in his words, freedom of movement should not serve traffickers in human beings.
He also added that these principles should not be translated into the freedom of a member state to shirk its responsibilities at the expense of neighbouring countries.
Lellouche used the French verb 'se défausser', which originally means 'to get rid of a bad card'.
France is a net donor to the EU, Lellouche said, and contributes five billion euros each year to the EU budget. Romania is a net beneficiary, he went on, receiving four billion euros each year. Of those amounts, Romania has not spent more than 80 million on its Roma, which is a meagre 0.4%, he stressed.
The French minister said he had asked the Romanian authorities to put in place a contingency plan and a longer-term plan for Roma integration, in the fields of schooling, housing, health care and access to the labour market, region by region, with clear deadlines.
He said he had asked Commissioner Reding to ensure that European money goes to those who need it most. He also said he had asked the Commission to beef up cooperation on justice and home affairs, to counter the exploitation of human beings in begging activities and prostitution.
Bulgaria 'on the safe side'
Asked by EURACTIV why he never once mentioned Bulgaria when speaking about the Roma, Lellouche said he had spoken to his Bulgarian colleague, who had assured him that Sofia supported France's handling of the problem.
However, according to press reports, the number of Bulgarian Roma is much smaller. Dnevnik, EURACTIV's partner in Bulgaria, reported that 56 people had been sent back to Sofia.
Bulgarian Foreign Minister Nickolay Mladenov said recently that Sofia expected a total of 150 Bulgarian Roma to be repatriated from France, and that their expulsion was France's internal affair.
Eric Besson insisted that many "stupid things" had been said and published regarding the repatriation and insisted that no mass expulsions had taken place. However, he explained, the fact that the Roma had signed papers promising that they would be paid 300 euros to leave the country at their own free will was in Paris's eyes a sufficient legal base for their expulsion.
Home Affairs Commissioner Malmström had accepted Paris's invitation to attend a meeting of immigration ministers, to be held in the French capital next Monday, Besson announced. This meeting was initially seen as controversial by the Brussels executive (EURACTIV 30/08/10).
Romania: Paris bribing Roma
In the meantime, EU Commissioners Reding and Malmström also consulted the Romanian authorities ahead of a meeting of the full college today (1 September) at the Val Duchesse castle, where they are expected to report on the Roma controversy.
Bogdan Aurescu, state secretary in Romania's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told the press after meeting the commissioners that his country rejected France's justification for the Roma expulsions.
"I asked the European Commission to verify if these are genuinely voluntary repatriations, taking into account the circumstances of the successive dismantling of the camps, to the extent that the people in question are obliged to accept the offer to return to their country in exchange for a sum of money," he said, quoted by AFP.
He also insisted that to repatriate foreign nationals, France needed to prove that they were guilty of crimes and offences, which apparently was not the case.
"Given that none of the 500 people repatriated so far have been jailed in Romania or France, it follows that their return has been made on the suspicion of future crimes, which infringes the presumption of innocence," Aurescu stated.