BRUSSELS -- In a narrow vote, the European Parliament in Strasbourg has delivered the sharpest rebuke to date to France on its policy of repatriating Romanian and Bulgarian Roma deemed to have become a public nuisance.
The resolution backed by 377 mostly left-wing deputies, led by the social democrats, prevailed among a number of competing drafts that had vied for the favor of the 736-member EU legislature.
The resolution expresses "deep concern at the measures taken by the French authorities and by other member states' authorities targeting Roma and Travelers," and says they should immediately "suspend all expulsions of Roma."
The document also notes that mass expulsions of EU citizens are prohibited under EU law, and condemns the "inflammatory and openly discriminatory rhetoric" that has accompanied the expulsions.
Welcoming the vote, the vice presidents of the social-democratic faction, Hannes Swoboda and Monika Flasikova, issued a statement saying the European Parliament had "reinstated the EU fundamental opposition to xenophobia and violation of citizens' rights."
But the vote was immediately rebuffed by France. Speaking in Bucharest, French Immigration Minister Eric Besson said it was "out of the question" for France to suspend the expulsions.
"The European Parliament deserves respect, [but] it has exceeded its prerogatives and we certainly are under no obligation to comply with such a political diktat," Besson said.
'Pointing Fingers At France'
Over the past weeks, the French government has repeatedly said all repatriations are handled individually on a case-by-case basis. It has claimed those leaving do so voluntarily in exchange for a onetime payment of 300 euros ($380) or as a result of court-issued expulsion orders for threatening public order.
The right-wing European People's Party (EPP) grouping, whose own draft resolution calling for a "European Roma strategy" was defeated, issued a statement accusing their political rivals of "exploiting the Roma."
Simon Busuttil, the drafter of the EPP motion, said that "pointing fingers at France and the European Commission as the left side of the European Parliament has done in a resolution adopted today, does not, unfortunately, address the real challenges of improving the living conditions, education, health care, and other basic needs of the Roma people."
The EU's semi-executive European Commission, which is nominally in charge of enforcing EU treaties, has treaded a cautious line and avoided direct attacks on France, although it appears worried Paris has gone too far.
On September 7, the president of the commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, in his state-of-the-union address before the European Parliament, called for "responsible" action from governments and warned against "reawakening the ghosts of Europe's past."
This last is a thinly-veiled reference to the stigmatization of the Roma in Europe that culminated in the drive by Nazi Germany to exterminate the entire nation. The Roma, numbering some 10 million-12 million today, are Europe's largest stateless minority.
EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding told the European Parliament the same day that France would be given unspecified future "assistance" in implementing EU directives. But she also avoided blaming Paris directly for any misconduct and said more information was needed.
Doing More For The Roma
Regardless of the actions of the European Parliament or the European Commission, direct sanctions against France remain extremely unlikely. Under the Lisbon Treaty, a qualified majority of member states is needed to suspend the voting rights, among others, of any member state found to be in breach of its human rights commitments.
Behind the scenes, EU officials are working to defuse a spat between France and Romania that broke into the open last week when ministers in Paris accused the government in Bucharest of not doing enough to integrate its Romany minority. In her September 7 speech, Reding also stressed that all host countries of the Roma must do more to ensure the minority had access to adequate health care and education and employment opportunities.
Two French officials, Minister for European Affairs Pierre Lellouche and Immigration Minister Besson, are in Romania today to discuss an emergency plan that France wants Romania to implement.
Lellouche was quoted as saying that France would press for closer police and judicial cooperation, collaboration in the fight against human trafficking, and integration of Roma in Romania.
The social democrats in the European Parliament today announced they would be dispatching their own fact-finding mission to "Hungary, Slovakia, Romania, and other European countries to monitor the Roma situation."