18th Mar 2018

Roma dispute threatens to engulf EU summit

  • In fighting mode: France is throwing around punches after sharp criticism of its Roma policy (Photo:

Centre-right leaders gathering in a castle near Brussels on Wednesday night (15 September) tried to calm the waters in a rapidly escalating dispute over French Roma expulsions. But the row risks hijacking the agenda at this week's EU summit.

"There will definitely be discussions about [France's Roma policy] at this summit. It's of course the right of the EU commission to check if countries respect the law, but I find that the tone and especially the comparison with historical events was not quite appropriate," German Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters as she entered the EPP meeting.

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Earlier the same day, French President Sarkozy reacted furiously to a statement by EU justice commissioner Viviane Reding that Paris' Roma policy was in breach of EU law and gave rise to "a situation [she] thought Europe would not have to witness again after the Second World War."

The French President at a meeting with senators reportedly said that Luxembourg could host the Roma instead. Ms Reding is a centre-right politician from Luxembourg.

"He said he was only applying European regulations, French laws, and France is irreproachable in the matter but that if the Luxembourgers want to take them he had no problem," senator Bruno Sido from Sarkozy's Union of Popular Movement (UMP) party said, AFP reports.

"He said that our policy is right and, as he will explain tomorrow [at the EU summit], it's scandalous that Europe expresses itself like this on what France is doing."

Luxembourg in return rebuked Paris, with foreign minister Jean Asselborn saying: "I know that Nicolas Sarkozy has problems with Luxembourgers, but he's gone too far." The reference to "problems" relates to Mr Sarkozy's previous sparring match with the EU principality over banking secrecy.

Neither Ms Reding nor the premier of Luxembourg, Jean-Claude Juncker, showed up at the EPP meeting. France was represented by its Prime Minister, Francois Fillon, who declined to make any statements.

For his part, Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, speaking ahead of the EPP event, said that his country had "no problem with France," despite the fact that over 1,000 Romanian and Bulgarian citizens have up to now been sent back to their countries of origin in exchange for a modest lump sum of money.

"We want our citizens to respect the rules of the countries where they go," Mr Borisov said.

From the Romanian side, EPP deputy Marian-Jean Marinescu told reporters in Brussels that he expected France to "correct its mistakes" and stop the expulsions. "Every citizen has to abide by the law, but so must EU states, big or small," Mr Marinescu added.

The row is likely to overshadow the EU summit on Thursday, with both Mr Sarkozy and Mr Juncker sitting at the same table. The official summit agenda is about EU "strategic partnerships" with big countries such as China.

The EPP group as a whole took more than 24 hours to react to the situation, being in the impossible position of having both Ms Reding and Mr Sarkozy as members of their political family.

"The EPP group regrets the excesses of both sides in recent days on the Roma situation; excesses in the words of certain French ministers, excesses in the words of certain commissioners who unhappily compared the situation in France today to the Nazi regime," said the chairman of the EPP in the European Parliament, French MEP Joseph Daul.

EU commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso has meanwhile distanced himself from the remarks that France's methods were similar to those of the Nazi regime, while backing Ms Reding on substance.

Expressions used "in the heat of the moment may have given rise to misunderstandings," he said during a previously scheduled press briefing with the Austrian president in Brussels on Wednesday. Ms Reding, he insisted, "did not want to establish any parallelism between what happened in the Second World War and the present."

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