Italy's crackdown on Roma criticised across Europe
Italy and Spain have quarrelled over Rome's plans to tighten up its immigration policies as part of a bid to tackle rising tensions among Italians towards migrants from Romania.
Franco Frattini, Italy's foreign minister and former European commissioner for immigration, complained about comments on Italy's affairs made by leading politicians in Madrid, noting "Frankly, it's time to stop these [political] pitch invasions."
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"Declarations from ministers that interfere with the activities of a government elected by the Italian citizens are not acceptable, especially in areas like immigration which need close cooperation between Spain and Italy," Mr Frattini said in a radio interview.
He reacted to earlier statements by Spain's deputy premier Maria Teresa Fernandez de la Vega who had said that the Spanish executive "rejects violence, racism and the xenophobia, and therefore cannot agree with what is happening in Italy."
A pair of Mr Zapatero's ministers added fuel to the fire over the weekend, with the Spanish secretary of labour and immigration, Corbacho Celestine, saying Silvio Berlusconi "wants to criminalise those that are different."
The statements came shortly after last week's attacks on Roma communities in Italy in which inhabitants of Naples set fire to camp-like homes of Roma families and forced them to flee. The violent move came after a report that a Roma girl allegedly attempted to kidnap a baby.
The issue was one of the key political themes of the early parliamentary elections won by the centre-right leader Berlusconi, who tasked Roberto Maroni from the anti-immigrant Northern League to chair the interior affairs portfolio.
"It is time to intervene with force to avoid episodes of the unjustifiable violence that we saw in Naples," Mr Maroni said in reaction to the incident, suggesting "firm measures" are needed to tackle the country's "security emergency."
European Commission spokesperson Pietro Petrucci said that Italy had not violated community laws "up to this moment", with regard to free movement of people, adding that the executive is "following the situation closely."
The events in Italy have sparked critical comments from several European quarters, with MEPs due today (20 May) to debate the crackdowns on Roma in Italy and elsewhere across Europe.
Hungarian liberal MEP and a Roma herself Viktoria Mohacsi visited gypsy camps outside Rome and Naples. According to Italy's AGI news agency, she said that she had been "frightened and filled with horror" by what she had seen.
She referred to "[the] random night roundups, assault in prisons, gratuitous arrests and a general persecutory climate unworthy of a country which considers itself democratic."
"The current situation in Italy is difficult," said the German chairperson of the European Parliament's Socialist group, Martin Schultz, adding, "But we don't want to conceal the fact that the issue of minority protection and integration of Roma in society is not a uniquely Italian problem in Europe."
The same discussion - also following violent attacks against Roma communities in Italy and after criticism in Romania against Rome's methods of tackling the problem - took place last autumn.
Back in November, EU lawmakers adopted a resolution suggesting that a network of organisations deal with the social inclusion of Roma as well as promote the rights and duties of the Roma community.
In addition, the then prime minister of Italy, centre-left leader Romano Prodi and his Romanian liberal counterpart Calin Popescu-Tariceanu, urged the European Commission to help EU countries cope with the integration of other member states' citizens - in particular of Roma origin.
Brussels responded that most initiatives regarding Roma are already in place. On Tuesday, the EU executive and the Slovenian presidency are set to be asked the same question once again by MEPs.