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France's Roma Expulsions Overshadow EU Summit

  • Ahto Lobjakas

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso (left) and French President Nicolas Sarkozy reportedly engaged in a "fierce exchange" at the summit in Brussels.

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso (left) and French President Nicolas Sarkozy reportedly engaged in a "fierce exchange" at the summit in Brussels.

BRUSSELS -- What onlookers described as a "fierce exchange" between French President Nicolas Sarkozy and the president of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, over France's controversial expulsions of Roma cast a pall over an EU summit in Brussels.

The French president emerged from the exchange unbowed, saying the repatriations are legal and will continue.

Pressed by journalists for details on his altercation with Barroso over his government's treatment of the Roma, a somber-looking Sarkozy observed, "If anyone didn't lose their cool, it was me."

He added, "I will not allow my country to be insulted," a reference to sharp criticism directed at France by EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding on September 14.

Barroso, speaking after the end of the summit, said discrimination against ethnic minorities is "unacceptable," while conceding that Reding had crossed a line by likening the French government's expulsions of Roma to World War II deportations.

Sarkozy left no doubt he has no intention of backing down in the row over the legality and morality of his policy of expelling illegal resident Roma, which has engulfed France in recent weeks.

"We will, naturally, respond to all the questions posed to us," Sarkozy said. "But France must know that this policy will continue in strict respect of republican law."

Sarkozy said all camp clearance and expulsion decisions are taken by judges and are in line with French and European Union law.

Apology Offered

The Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov had earlier told reporters that Sarkozy and Barroso had a "fierce exchange" at the start of the meeting. Barroso was reported to have come out strongly in support of Reding, who previously described France's repatriations of Roma as a "disgrace."

A Roma family arrives in Bucharest from the French city of Marseille on September 14.
Reding was reacting to revelations that a French Interior Ministry memo had specifically instructed the authorities to target the Roma camps above all other illegal squats. The commissioner threatened Paris with sanctions and alluded to how, in World War II, Nazi-occupied France sent tens of thousands of Jews to concentration camps.

Reding later apologized for the reference, which had drawn criticism from a number of EU leaders, among them Germany's Angela Merkel.

Sarkozy said he had annulled the Interior Ministry memo "the very minute" he learmed of it. He also said his policy of Roma expulsions has Merkel's full backing, who herself has overseen the repatriation of some 12,000 Balkan Roma this year.

During a lengthy debate on September 16 among EU leaders, European Council President Herman van Rompuy said all had agreed that member states have "the right and the obligation" to apply their legislation, including expelling undesired visitors, while the European Commission has "the right and the obligation" to uphold EU law and pursue its own investigations.

Van Rompuy said a debate on the situation of the Roma in the EU will be held at the EU's next summit in October.

Sarkozy said France will continue to work with Barroso's commission "without any problems."

Discussions Fell Short

The dispute stole the limelight from a debate on the EU's strategic partners, which was meant to be the main theme of the summit. With its constitutional Lisbon Treaty in place since last December, the EU is now looking for ways revitalize its relationships with key global players.

Romanian President Traian Basescu (right) talks with Sarkozy prior to the start of the EU summit.
The bloc currently has nine strategic partners, ranging from Russia to Mexico.

Diplomats say the discussion on September 16 fell far short of supplying solutions to the EU's main problem, which Van Rompuy has repeatedly identified as the bloc's tendency to "punch below its weight." Instead, what took place was described by one participant as "an attempt at systematization."

Van Rompuy indicated that the mood among the member states is predominantly one of pragmatism.

"Reciprocity is a key word. It is not a dirty word. One can also speak about mutual interests. We insist on deliverables and leverage," he said.

Officials said the views expressed at the summit varied widely, with some member states stressing the importance of shared values while others argued that the EU must pursue its own "naked self-interest."

A powerful reminder of the EU's inability to assert itself on the global stage was provided by Poland, where a Chinese construction company recently won a huge road construction tender after underbidding other competitors by some 60 percent. One diplomat observed that "the opposite, however, does not work," referring to the EU's inability to secure similarly lucrative contracts in China.

A summit with China in early October will present an early test for the EU.

Officials say the EU is likely to remain hamstrung in the foreseeable future by the diverging interests of its member states, which make reaching common positions extremely difficult.

Eastern European member states scored a minor victory by forcing the rest of the EU to pledge that, in its drive to forge global strategic partnerships, the bloc will not neglect its own neighborhood.

"Our global reputation begins at our doorstep," Van Rompuy observed after the summit.

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