France wants to convene EU summit on Roma issue

Ayrault at La Rochelle.jpg

French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault says his country will request “in the following days” holding a European Council meeting to make decisions “at the European level” on the Roma – many of them from Romania and Bulgaria – who settle in illegal camps in France and other countries.

“We would like this question to be addressed at the European level and we are going to request in the following days a meeting of the European Council,” Ayrault said on Saturday (25 August), quoted by Agence France-Presse.

In EU jargon, a European Council meeting is a summit of the EU countries’ heads of state and governments. But it remains unclear whether Ayrault's intention is to discuss the Roma issue at a special meeting at the highest level or to include it as an agenda item at the regular summit, to be held on 18-19 October.

Extraordinary summits are formally called upon the initiative of European Council President Herman Van Rompuy.

The prime minister made the announcement while responding to questions of young Socialists at the “Summer university” of his Socialist party, held in La Rochelle.

“We have decided it will be the task of Bernard Cazeneuve [the European Affairs minister] to hold talks with the governments of Romania and Bulgaria, because it’s their governments that are concerned,” Ayrault said, adding that his cabinet was not “burying its head in the sand” over the problem.

The first meeting of the French government following the holiday break, held Wednesday (22 August), discussed the Roma and their social inclusion.

In an effort to facilitate access to work for Roma migrants, many of them from Bulgaria and Romania, France will examine the possibility of opening its labour market to the nationals of the two countries, the French government then announced. According to the government decision, France was going to ask the Cyprus EU presidency to put the issue on the agenda of the next European summit.

Romania backs French moves

On Thursday (23 August), the Romanian government issued a statement welcoming what it described as “the French government’s decision to ease the Romanian and Bulgarian citizens’ access to the French labour market.”

“The Ministry of Foreign Affairs also hails the French government’s constructive approach to the integration of the Roma people. … The Ministry of Foreign Affairs reiterates the Romanian authorities’ full readiness to identify and implement, jointly with the French partners, the projects of Roma social inclusion. The solutions of this process must be found at national level, but they must be equally included in the European context, with European support,” the Romanian government stated.

The Bulgarian government had no official reaction. Individual MEPs hailed the announced French intention to lift the working restrictions on Bulgarian nationals.

Bulgaria apparently wants to play down the issue of illegal Roma camps in France as the number of Bulgarian Roma there is relatively small compared to those from Romania.

Bulgaria and Romania had different reactions to the expulsions of Roma carried out in 2010 under the then-government of President Nicolas Sarkozy. While Romania heavily criticised the actions of the French government, which was also strongly condemned by the European Commission, Bulgaria kept silent.

French Ministers to visit Sofia, Bucharest

French ministers of Interior Manuel Valls and his colleague responsible for of European Affairs Bernard Cazeneuve will visit Bulgaria and Romania in mid-September to find “European solutions” to the Roma problem, the French press announced.

“I will accompany Bernard Cazeneuve in mid September in a visit to Bulgaria and Romania, since it is in these countries that solutions must be found,” Valls was quoted as saying.

He added: “I would like to understand why strong policies for the integration of these populations are not conducted in these countries”. 

The Roma are Europe's largest ethnic minority, EU figures show.

The European Commission estimates the Roma population in the EU at 11 million, with with their origins tracing back to mediaeval India.

Census statistics show 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 and Greece, while 500,000 live in Turkey.

Many Roma from Eastern Europe moved to the West following the EU's enlargement.

France has insisted that the measures it took to expel members of the Roma community are not discriminatory and are intended to protect security and public order.

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