“anti-gypsy summit” in Paris next week between 5 of the EU’s biggest powers. France’s deportations are not only drawing fire from human rights groups – they are also coming very close to violating EU law, since Romanian nationals are now EU citizens and, in theory, have the right to live anywhere in the EU. The deportations are calling into question what the limits of “free movement” really are. And there are signs that some rightist politicians in Europe may be looking for an opening to make those EU guarantees of free movement more restrictive.
France’s Roma deportations are actually nothing new. France has been closing down illegal Roma camps and sending their inhabitants home for years - and if those inhabitants’ homes happened to be in another country, that’s where they were sent. Last year 10,000 Roma were sent back to Romania and Bulgaria. These Roma have been paid to leave, and the government has always said they were being sent home voluntarily (although they were involuntarily removed from their illegal camps).
Two things have conspired to bring the issue to an EU-wide boil this year. One reason is that several Roma human rights groups have challenged this year’s deportations, saying now that Romanians and Bulgarians are EU citizens they cannot be deported. The second is that French president Nicolas Sarkozy appears to want to make these deportations as high profile as possible, whereas last year they were somewhat covert. The government is clearly trying to Europeanise the issue. Sakozy’s political opponents at home have accused him of cynically persecuting a small, vulnerable group for political gain. They say as his political fortunes continue to slide he is trying to curry favour from the country’s far right. They say it a meaningless political trick, especially since most of the Roma that were paid to leave France in the past couple years ended up just coming right back afterwards, since they have every legal right to do so. Sarko, for his part, seems keen to talk about the deportations to anyone who will listen.
The word ‘Roma’ comes from the common word for ‘man’ in all the various gypsy languages across Europe. The name ‘Romania’ was developed because the population speaks a Romance language descended from Roman inhabitants.
This year’s deportations are in reaction to a specific incident. Last month, a riot was sparked off after a gendarme shot and killed a 22 year old Roma French national. Officials say he sped through a police checkpoint, knocking over a police officer. In response, around 50 French Roma attacked a small town in the Loire Valley, ransacking the police station, burning cars and smashing windows. Sarkoy called an emergency meeting of his cabinet and it was decided that 300 illegal Roma camps and squats throughout the country would be raided and dismantled, and their inhabitants deported or moved. But the camps being targeted were not necessarily involved in the riot. And those Roma who are Romanian nationals and are being deported not only had nothing to do with the riot by French Roma, they also don’t typically have any contact with those French Roma camps because they don’t speak the same language.
So far the European Commission has merely said it is “monitoring the situation” and has not gotten involved. But the issue became more complicated last week when Italy’s interior minister Roberto Maroni told an Italian newspaper that he plans to ask the EU, at next week’s Paris meeting being organized by Sarkozy, for the rules to be changed so EU member states can expel EU citizens if they are unable to financially support themselves. Brussels reacted to these comments with great alarm. Freedom of movement is one of the most sacred cornerstones of EU policy. If there was an EU Bill of Rights, that would be one of the first items on it. It’s just about as sacred as freedom of speech in America.
So the Belgian EU presidency reacted by saying it may boycott the meeting if it is seen as an attempt to give EU legitimacy to the expulsions or to start negotiations toward taking away EU citizens’ freedom of movement rights. Since then they have agreed to participate but have said the discussions would be limited to migration and will not address the Roma issue. But in reality, they will have little power to control what areas the discussion delves into.
Even as the comments coming out of Italy have become more and more alarming, the European Commission has remained silent. To many it’s nakedly hypocrital, because back in 2008, the commission threatened Italy with legal action if it pushed forward with a proposal to allow the expulsion of EU citizens who have been convicted of a crime. Italians have long complained that they are continually picked on by the commission, but that the EU executive would never criticize its much more powerful neighbor France in the same way. Indeed it has long been observed that the commission is much quicker to condemn countries like Italy, Spain or the UK than it is to offer criticism of Germany or France. Many Italians are noting with dry cynicism that now that they have found French allies in their fight against the “gypsy problem,” as they call it, they are no longer being criticized.
Part of the reason for the silence from Brussels may just be that the commission has been on its summer recess and nobody is around to ‘sign off’ on any criticism (an accurate yet depressing reflection of EU inertia). I suspect this issue is going to dramatically hot up next week as the commissioners return freshly tanned from their summer holidays. France, for its part, seems keen to push the issue. But how will Barroso’s commission deal with the controversy? Will he send aggressive signals toward France and Italy in an effort to defend freedom of movement, or will he capitulate and risk allowing member states to slowly chip away at the fundamental rights of EU citizens? How will the Belgian EU presidency handle the issue at next week’s summit? And could the new council president Herman Van Rumpoy step in to chastise France and Italy for their recent moves? (ha, that last one was a joke, obviously!)