France handed ultimatum in Roma row

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The European Commission has decided to take France to task regarding its summer crackdown on illegal Roma camps, giving Paris until 15 October to prove that its policies comply with EU laws guaranteeing the free circulation of people.

Brussels has threatened to launch legal proceedings against France for failing to implement EU laws on the free circulation of people, standing its ground in the ongoing standoff over France's Roma deportations.

Paris was given until 15 October to respond.

"The right of every EU citizen to free movement within the Union is one of the fundamental principles of the EU," the Commission said in a statement.

"At this stage, the Commission considers that France has not yet transposed the Directive on Free Movement into national legislation."

A letter of formal notice will be sent to France requesting the full transposition of the directive, "unless draft transposition measures and a detailed transposition schedule are provided by 15 October 2010".

France is also being asked detailed questions regarding the practical application of its repatriation policy since this summer and to explain in particular that it "did not have the objective or the effect of targeting a specific ethnic minority, but treated all EU citizens in the same manner".

It is not yet clear whether the October deadline applies to that particular aspect of France's repatriation policy, which is at the centre of the current standoff.

France singled out

It had earlier been expected that the warning to Paris would be issued alongside a raft of similar proceedings against a dozen other countries, including Italy, where popular resentment against the Roma has been running high (EURACTIV 21/05/08).

But in the end, France was singled out, signalling that the Commission has no intention of giving up on the issue, which has triggered a heated exchange between French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Commission President José Manuel Barroso at a European summit two weeks ago (EURACTIV 17/09/10).

In a statement, the French foreign ministry said that "France, like the other member states, will bring the necessary elements to complete [the Commission's] evaluation".

The statement said "France takes note that no procedure has been started" regarding the conformity of its legislation with EU laws on the free movement of people.

Speaking before the French National Assembly in Paris, French immigration minister Eric Besson told MPs: "We should all be happy. France is emerging with its head high from its exchange with the Commission. It's good news for everyone."

Taking the honours of the hemicycle

Meanwhile, EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding was visibly received with great satisfaction by the European Parliament in the large hemicycle where plenary sessions usually take place.

Reding made clear that Europe had changed under the Lisbon Treaty and the Commission had new powers which it intended to use.

"I think the Parliament has understood very well that the decision of today to open infringement proceedings against France, on this very important basic question on values and rights, was a very strong movement," the commissioner said.

"And here you have the whole commissioners' college behind this infringement proceeding, just saying 'no, we cannot accept that essential procedural safeguards, rights for the European citizens, not even speaking about the Roma, rights for European citizens have not been put into national law, and thus could not be used in order to protect citizens in a crisis situation," she elaborated.

Touching upon the discrimination aspect, she cited the administrative memo from the French administration dated 5 August, which she said clearly violated EU law. This circular was corrected on 13 September, "but what has happened in between?" she asked.

"On this, we do not have concrete answers and concrete proof," she said.

Legal procedure not excluded

"We do not have the legal proof in order to go in front of the court on the discrimination [account]. We say very clearly that the assurances which have been given by the French authorities are very positive sentences, but we need to verify the facts. And this is why the Commission sent this letter to the French government, asking for very clear information about very clear facts," Reding said.

She then listed the relevant documents which the Commission was expecting from the French authorities, citing "the copies of the orders of expulsions" sent to Roma families.

"And we need not one or two, we need wide numbers in order to go ahead with this analysis," she said.

"We haven't closed any files, the file is on the table. And we are giving until 15 October to the French autority to respond to these very very concrete questions."

Roma strategy due in 2011

In the longer term, the Commission announced it will present an EU Framework for National Roma Integration Strategies in April next year.

The strategy will assess the use of national and European funding and make proposals for more effective implementation of EU funds in tackling Roma exclusion.

Member states are invited to present their own strategies for the inclusion of Roma as part of national reform programmes to be submitted under the 'Europe 2020' targets on poverty reduction, employment and education.

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French Green MEP Hélène Flautre said she would not miss this rare occasion to congratulate the European Commission and to give thanks to Viviane Reding for the "firm and clear" language she had had the courage to use in the face of "political pressures".

"I think that what the Commission has decided today unanimously […] is good news," Flautre said.

Belgian MEP Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the liberal ALDE group, said: "As ALDE was the first to react to the anti-Roma policy of France, we welcome the Commission's decision to initiate action. We will be most vigilant that every step of this infringement procedure be taken if necessary. At the same time we will closely monitor that policies targeting specific ethnic groups, whether in France or other countries, are ended both on paper and in practice."

Joseph Daul, a Frenchman who is leader of the centre-right EPP group in Parliament, said: "The freedom of movement within Europe is a crucial achievement of the EU. It is vital that member states and the European institutions work to guarantee this achievement."

"Therefore, it is undoubtedly necessary that the Commission initiates formal steps against any member state where necessary, in order to bring to light any doubtful situation," added Daul, whose European People's Party houses the UMP party of French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

"The Commission needs to show consistency in its actions and examine the facts," explained Mr Daul. "All member states are equal and therefore should to be treated equally in similar situations. As a consequence, we ask the Commission to show the same consistency in future cases and pursuit any violations of the freedom of movement, no matter whether a small or a large member state is concerned," he said.

The Socialists & Democrats welcomed the European Commission's "unprecedented" decision. 

S&D Group leader Martin Schulz said: "The opening of an infringement procedure against France marks an important precedent. For the first time the Commission has decided to exercise its powers as guardian of EU law not in relation to the internal market or competition, but on a fundamental principle underpinning the EU citizenship."

"The European Socialists & Democrats have always seen this move as the only and inevitable consequence of recent Roma expulsions from France," Schulz said.

"The EU is a community based on law and the Commission as guardian of the treaty has to guarantee freedom of movement  without special treatments for big countries which have to respect the law as much as the small ones," he added. 

Claude Moraes, S&D spokesperson on civil liberties and home affairs, added: "Today's decision doesn't come by chance. It is the expected result of a strong political initiative by our Group that has taken the EP to adopt a key resolution opposed by the Right and calling on the Commission to react strongly."

"We stand behind the decision of the Commission to ensure a correct transposition of the directive 38/2004 and the rights of all EU citizens to move and reside freely in the territory of the European Union," Moraes said.

"The European Commission, however, must not let France off the hook on discrimination, giving the impression that what happened in France is simply a case of maladministration," he added.

At a meeting organised by the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS) in Brussels yesterday (29 September), Telmo Baltazar, a member of the cabinet of EU Justice and Human Rights Commissioner Viviane Reding, said that successfully integrating Roma citizens would require political leaders "to counter all rhetoric that fuels discrimination".

The Commission is the guardian of the treaties but will not get results if it acts too much like a "police office," he said, adding that the EU should try and improve its existing human rights mechanisms rather than create new ones due to recent events.

Thomas Hammarberg, the Council of Europe's Commissioner for Human Rights, criticised the French government for its handling of the Roma affair and called for a new European approach towards marginalised Roma communities.

The rhetoric used by the French government "feeds into age-old prejudices about Roma being connected to criminality," he lamented. "It is very unfortunate that leading politicians in Europe today could lend their support to this kind of language," he added.

The question of whether Roma communities are doing enough to integrate themselves in society is a fair one, said Hammarberg, but as long as daily anti-Roma prejudice and abuse persists, "it is very difficult for them to make changes from within". European politicians should be more self-critical, he added.

Elspeth Guild, a senior associate research fellow at the Centre for European Policy Studies, said the EU must find ways to strengthen its capacity to ensure that its law on free movement of people and fundamental rights charter are properly respected.

One solution is to give the European Court of Justice the power to freeze expulsions in a member state if there is considerable doubt about the legality of the actions – as the Council of Europe's European Court of Human Rights has done in the past, she added.

Ioannis Dimitrakopoulos, head of the Equality and Citizens' Rights Department of the Fundamental Rights Agency, pointed out that many Roma citizens in the EU are largely unaware of their rights and options for redress when faced with discrimination.

There needs to be better coordination between the different levels of government – from national down to local – in the member states' policies towards minorities, he added.

MEP Nathalie Griesbeck (Modem, France): "The discrimination we have seen in France and other countries over recent months is contrary to the fundamental values of the European Union. We now expect the Commission to fulfill its duty and screen every country with a view to preventing any discrimination or curtailment of the right of free movement."

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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  • 15 October: Deadline for France to provide draft measures and a detailed transposition schedule for the 2004 directive on the free movement of people.

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