20th Sep 2020

Roma expulsions are sign of 'dangerous times' in Europe, human rights chief says

  • Council of Europe chief Jagland says the ball is in France's court (Photo: Council of Europe)

The French Roma crisis is a sign of a "dangerous" drift to the right in European politics but also an opportunity to do "something real" for the minority, the secretary general of the Council of Europe has said in an interview with EUobserver.

Referring to the high-profile dispute between Brussels and Paris over Roma expulsions, Thorbjorn Jagland, the head of the Council of Europe, the oldest intergovernmental organisation promoting human rights and democracy, said EU politicians should stop competing for media coverage and "start doing something real for this minority."

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"The Council of Europe has a very clear stand on this and I see my role as trying to use this situation for something constructive. It is a crisis and normally something positive can come out of a crisis," he said, noting that his institution is currently re-allocating resources to give legal aid to Roma if they want to defend their rights in court.

The EU commission on Wednesday backed down on its earlier threat to take France to court on anti-discrimination grounds. It instead asked Paris for extra information and gave it a two week deadline to comply with EU law on freedom of movement

"It remains to be seen now what the response from France is. If France is clearly demonstrating that it is abiding by the EU aquis and therefore also by the rules in the European Convention [on human rights], then we have achieved a lot," Mr Jagland said.

The Norwegian politician put the Roma case in the broader context of the rise of anti-immigration parties across Europe in the past two years.

"It's the same old story on this continent - that when we have an economic crisis, minorities are the worst hit. And of course Roma people are suffering the most because the economic crisis also leads to growing intolerance, competition for jobs and welfare. These are quite dangerous times," he said.

Asked how Council of Europe members can justify working together with far-right parties on the domestic scene, he explained that "most governments don't want to be at the mercy of extreme forces, so we can help them by trying to find ways to educate people and overcome these dividing lines."

The Strasbourg, France-based Council of Europe has on 20 October invited all 47 of its members, including the Balkan countries, Russia and Turkey, as well as delegates from the EU and other international bodies, to a special meeting to consider "measures improving the situation of Roma throughout Europe."

"It is a pan-European problem that is affecting most European nations," Mr Jagland said.

"[Kosovo] is probably the place where we have the most awful conditions in [Roma] camps," he added. "The camp in Mitrovica is an international scandal, it's supposed to be under UN authority, but it is the EU who is building houses for the people there."

French President Nicolas Sarkozy's government on Wednesday claimed victory in its dispute with the EU commission following Brussels decision no to launch the legal proceedings.

"France comes out with its head up from the exchange it had with the commission. This is good news for everybody, especially for the republicans," immigration minister Eric Besson said in French daily Le Monde.

EU justice commissioner Viviane Reding, who has spearheaded the commission's reaction so far, the same day told MEPs there was not enough legal proof to sue Paris for discrimination. The legal case was weakened by France's official repudiation of a leaked memo saying police had been specifically instructed to target Roma camps.

"Two weeks ago I expressed my disappointment - to say the least - about the circular issued on 5 August targeting Roma 'with priority.' This is a violation of EU law. It has been corrected on 13 September. But now the question is what happened between 5 August and 13 September and what is happening now. On this, we don't have concrete answers," she said.

"We have reassurances from France, but that is why we asked for clear facts."

Her argumentation left many euro-deputies unconvinced. "When we have had a situation like the circular, how is this not discrimination," said British MEP Claude Moraes from the Socialist group.

Italian Liberal deputy Sonia Alfano said the commission's climb-down on the anti-dsicrimination case was "ridiculous." "If France gave reassurances that they did not target Roma, but that is excatly what was in the circular that was hidden, how is this not infringing EU law and human rights?" she asked.

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