Marielle de Sarnez: ‘Europe burying its head on Roma issue’

Marielle de Sarnez small.jpg

Europe has chosen to bury its head in the sand on the Roma issue, French MEP Marielle de Sarnez (ALDE) told EURACTIV in an interview, calling on EU countries and institutions, including the European Commission, to "clean their own doorsteps and assume their responsibilities".

Marielle de Sarnez is a French member of the European Parliament for the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) group.

She was speaking to EURACTIV's Georgi Gotev.

To read a story that refers to this interview, please click here

You have been active following the debates over the expulsions of Roma from your country, France, as well as on their less-than-enviable situation in several European countries. Today (8 September) you are negotiating for a resolution from the European Parliament on the same subject, which could eventually command widespread support, including that of the European People's Party (EPP) to which French President Nicolas Sarkozy's UMP belongs. Is this possible?

I certainly hope so. As far as I've understood, the EPP have said that they wouldn't sign a resolution that points the finger at France. I myself am in favour of pointing the finger at countries that play around dangerously – and France is not the only one doing this.

Everyone has chosen to bury their heads in the sand on the Roma issue and I think that they should clean their own doorsteps and assume their responsibilities. France shares this responsibility and I haven't liked the political rhetoric that's been coming out of the country – which stigmatises and blames, which places all responsibility on a community. This shows that something isn't right and Europe will not accept discriminatory discourse like that.

I also think that a responsibility exists on behalf of the countries of origin. At the end of the day, if Roma are emigrating it is because they feel rejected, marginalised and left to fend for themselves like second-rate citizens in their own countries. Greater effort to integrate them in their own countries is therefore needed.

But Europe hasn't cleaned its own doorstep either, it hasn't confronted this problem following enlargement. The Commission hasn't asked itself how we could integrate fragile populations crossing borders. A lot of money has been spent, 13.3 billion euros from the European Social Fund alone, without counting other sources where money is earmarked for the Roma. That adds up to a lot of money, but the Roma are not living in better conditions today.

During debates in the plenary, some have put forward the argument that governments don't like spending money on the Roma, as it reflects badly on the rest of the population, which is also sometimes living in equally bad social conditions.

Yes, but the money is there. If it isn't spent on the Roma then it is spent on others. It is diverted.

Or is it not spent at all? Is it that Bulgaria and Romania have a weak capacity for absorbing EU funding?

Both statements are true. The solution for the Roma, however, is integration via schooling, training, supporting women, making efforts for their housing and so on. There is no other solution.

And yet two approaches exist. French Minister for Immigration Eric Besson said that integration must take place in countries of origin. The European Commission says it must take place where they decide to settle. Who is right?

Ideally, the Roma would feel at ease in their own countries; that would clearly be better for them. However, they have decided to leave their countries for others such as Italy, France and Germany, so we must also make an effort to integrate them.

It is a shared effort that must be undertaken. It is true, however, that the countries of origin are not doing things correctly. I know that they are in a difficult economic and social situation, that perhaps their citizens say that they cannot afford to care for the Roma – but that's a vicious circle, because the less they are integrated the more they become scapegoats for the situation, like in France.

Mr Besson says that France isn't making any distinction according to ethnicity, and that it is for this reason that it cannot integrate the Roma because it if did, it would have to integrate all illegal immigrants.

It isn't true that France isn't discriminating according to ethnicity. I don't want to enter such a debate, however. I'm trying to raise the level of the debate and not enter into a purely French one. I haven't liked the political rhetoric of French leaders this summer and I didn't like what Italy was doing a year and a half ago. In each case, we chose to deliberately stigmatise a community and place all responsibility on their shoulders for internal political reasons.

There are only 12,000 Roma in France, and it wouldn't make sense for this modest number to be responsible for all the problems of violence and unemployment in France. It also got very tricky in France because we grouped the Roma, gypsies and 'gyppos' all together.

Travelling populations have complained about recent events.

Travellers have been very unhappy by this and I know some of them personally, they say that when they come to a local community or city they are not welcome any more, as they look like illegal immigrants when they are in fact French. These people are not parasites, I fully understand their way of living.

Then there are also the Roma. But no one is going to tell me that 12,000 of them is worth mobilising the French president and all ministries and public authorities.

They are perhaps worried that next summer there will be two million Roma instead.

Honestly, I don't want to be evangelical either. It was Michel Rocard who said that France cannot welcome all the misery of the world. This is true. There are two million Roma in Romania and it would be good if Romania also tried to integrate them. It would also be good if the Union and the European institutions all got together round the table.

We have all screwed up. Everyone has done their job badly and has hidden away, not facing the problem. When there was the [2004 and 2007] enlargement, we should have acknowledged that we had a real challenge to deal with: the mobility of vulnerable people. The Roma community is a vulnerable population and of course a mobile one.

The stigmatisation of Roma is being talked about a lot, but France must not be stigmatised either. Is that what you are saying?

I should explain that I do not agree with political discourse that stigmatises Roma in France and Italy, but that I am not against a deportation if the policy is in conformity with EU and national laws and that the person is in an illegal situation.

Do you now think that the French administration will go back on itself, after all that has been said?

There are two things here, the political rhetoric and the reality of the expulsions. I hope that the government will return to its senses, because as a French citizen I find it extremely sad to see my country being judged and condemned due to my leaders saying unacceptable things.

And I would find them unacceptable from any country, but especially from France, a country of human rights which should set an example. Otherwise, other countries could feel encouraged to do the same.

Like Hungary, where leaders of the xenophobic Jobbik party have spoken of imprisoning Roma in their camps, for example. Are you now angry with the Commission for finding excuses to do nothing about it?

Yes, I am angry because it can see everything going on but is dithering a little. It takes less action than is necessary on some countries and more than is necessary on others. The underlying point is that it hasn't done its job properly for the past 10 years. It simply states that it will organise meetings to deal with problems.

Indeed, the Commission says that only three ministers of the twenty-seven member states attended the meeting on the Roma issue under the Spanish Presidency. So it's the fault of the member states.

It's so easy to say that it's not my fault and that it's someone else's. It’s also the fault of the Commission, however.

Sarkozy met with Barroso on Monday- what do you think they said to each other?

In my opinion, they said: 'We don’t want to stir up a controversy.' That is to say, the Commission's position follows a political interview.

But one could also say that fighting between the Commission and France would not lead to anything good for either party.

It could be useful if the daily life of the Roma were to improve, but I don't think that's coming. For the moment, we point fingers at each other, saying who's to blame, and the Roma aren't interested. I think that a restrictive plan is needed for them.

Another aspect to the situation exists: Romania was France's great ally to the East.

It makes things really tricky and is a shame for the ties we have always shared.

What about Bulgaria, which is sidestepping the issue and saying that Sarkozy is right?

Well I can understand that the whole thing is difficult for these countries. Indeed, the extreme-right has said that Romania and Bulgaria's accession was a mistake. For them, the European project is wrong and French Gauls should only live with other French Gauls. Fortunately, however, the world doesn't work like that and can be founded on tolerance; on understanding others and not living in conflict with one another.

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