France, which has exercised an unofficial ascendancy over the European Union for the past 50 years, has rarely had to account for its actions to this multilateral entity. However, President Nicolas Sarkozy now finds himself a pariah in the eyes of key EU players for dismantling Roma encampments and expelling thousands of their residents to Romania and Bulgaria, their countries of origin.
There are approximately 7 million to 8 million Roma drawn from five of the 10 Central European countries that joined the EU between 2004 and 2007. Many follow a nomadic existence and growing numbers managed to relocate to Western Europe even before visa restrictions were relaxed or lifted for the new accession states. Some have managed to integrate, but plenty of others have preferred a life of begging that sometimes spills over into petty crime.
France is not the first major EU state to deport Roma back to their home countries. In 2001, Germany, then ruled by the Social Democrats, sent back large numbers who had fled war-torn Kosovo several years earlier. Sarkozy, troubled by falling popularity, expelled Roma with no means of support who had been resident in France for three months or more. France has insisted that by doing so no international convention or EU treaty was being broken.
But the beleaguered leader's transparent bid to renew his appeal with voters and the charge that Roma were being targeted on account of their ethnicity have led to angry clashes within the EU's main governing structures -- of a scale perhaps not witnessed since the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s. Viviane Reding, the Luxemburg politician who holds the justice portfolio in the European Commission, has proposed legal action that could see France hauled before the European Court of Justice by the end of the year.
Sarkozy's action currently enjoys majority French support in a country where impatience has mounted over the antisocial behavior of a new and highly visible addition to the population.
Lobbying, But For Whom?
But France is isolated in the upper reaches of the EU. Community officials have built up close links with numerous NGOs whose mission is to defend the human rights of various social and ethnic minorities. Roma advocacy groups have insisted that if there is a problem with the Roma, it is due to the systematic discrimination to which they have been subjected rather than any antisocial behavior. It is mainstream society that has to make most of the adjustments in order for an accommodation to be reached with the Roma.
This view has largely been embraced by the EU, which has channeled much of the funding devoted to Roma issues toward NGOs and their antidiscrimination programs. Combating intolerance and broadening the scope of minority rights are central to the EU's image as a socially progressive entity, even as it struggles to articulate a deeper and more lasting pan-European message.
But the plethora of conferences, workshops, and social-action programs has only scratched the surface of the Roma issue. All too often, the beneficiaries of these initiatives appear to be the NGOs themselves and an army of lawyers and consultancy groups where Roma are often far outnumbered by middle-class West European professionals.
This well-connected lobby shrinks from bold remedial action within the Romany world so as to swing the initiative away from patriarchal and sometimes overtly criminal groups that exploit women and children for commercial ends. It is debatable whether many lawyers or NGO officials who have condemned France's actions in the media have spent much time in the encampments or talked to residents about the conditions in their neighborhoods.
But Sarkozy's remedies appear almost as simplistic. He knows that Roma who have been sent home are at liberty, under European law, to reenter an EU state, even the one from which they have been expelled for having no means to support themselves. His insistence that countries like Romania and Bulgaria must integrate their Romany citizens so that they lose the desire to head to the richer West defies the facts on the ground.
Romania has an inefficient public bureaucracy that is often too hard-pressed to provide even routine services. It is clearly incapable of taking on such an ambitious feat of social engineering. And responsibility for this can, in no small measure, be laid at the door of the key EU players who allowed Romania to become the EU's 27th member in 2007 even though many of the required reforms existed on paper only.
Though tiny, Viviane Reding's Luxembourg actually carries some of the blame for the negligent approach of the EU to a country with problems that could not be wished away by the tick-box approach to reform of Brussels bureaucrats. Thanks to artful lobbying by Romania's postcommunist elite, Reding's Social Christian party, and its veteran leader Jean-Claude Juncker, Luxembourg became one of the most prominent advocates of Romania joining in 2007 -- even though this meant that its fragile economy risked being overwhelmed by competition from established EU states.
Real Roma Remedies
Good can only come from the Roma being thrust into the European spotlight -- if the EU adopts a far more serious and long-term approach to improving the circumstances of a marginalized group of Europeans who are rapidly growing in number. There are no quick fixes. It will take programs -- possibly stretching over many decades -- before the Roma put aside socially rebellious traits that place them on a collision course with settled communities.
Safeguarding women and children who are at risk from predatory elements within Romany society needs to be a priority. So is education in order to lower the high rate of illiteracy and give Roma a stake in the conventional economy.
Romany culture is not all dysfunctional, and this ethnic group possesses a remarkably vibrant musical tradition that can boost its status.
Perhaps an immediate start can be made if the EU reviews what were previously incoherent and hasty efforts to modernize Romania and Bulgaria. The country from which the Roma currently in the news mainly derive from is itself marginalized within the EU. The entry terms have benefited Western European multinationals and local powerbrokers who have bought up choice parts of what used to be a state-controlled economy, with millions of people thrown onto the scrap heap.
If the EU shirks its responsibility and continues to funnel cash toward lobbies that refuse to recognize how acute the crisis within Romany society is, this issue is capable of detonating huge conflicts within the EU. These could eclipse in scale and bitterness the present skirmish between an impetuous French leader and the defenders of the right of Romany people to roam and built new communities, often on public spaces in their newly adopted homelands.
Tom Gallagher teaches politics at Bradford University. His book "Romania And The European Union: How The Weak Vanquished The Strong" was published by Manchester University Press in 2009. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL