An uncharacteristically impassioned speech by an European Union commissioner has roiled relations between Brussels and Paris, where the French government has already attracted plenty of criticism for deporting some 1,000 homeless Roma.
"I personally have been appalled by a situation which gave the impression that people are being removed from a member state of the European Union just because they belong to a certain ethnic minority," said Viviane Reding, EU commissioner for justice and fundamental rights, in an angry speech on Tuesday. "This is a situation, I had thought, that Europe would not have to witness again after World War II."
French President Nicolas Sarkozy's government fired back on Wednesday morning. "This kind of gaffe is unseemly," said French Minister for European Affairs Pierre Lellouche on RTL radio. "Our patience has limits," he added, referring to Reding's tone. "One doesn't treat a large nation this way."
The French government this summer decided to repatriate a large number of Roma who had reportedly just arrived from eastern EU countries including Romania and Bulgaria. An estimated 1,000 Roma were cleared from their encampments and placed on special flights, having been paid 300 ($387) per adult -- and 100 per child -- by the government. France claims the Roma in question were willing to be deported, since they took the money, but critics around Europe have said the campaign smells like low-level ethnic cleansing.
As EU citizens, Romanian and Bulgarian Roma can freely cross European borders. They can stay in France on 90-day tourist visas before they need to find a job. But they're also part of the Continent's largest minority; they have a long history as nomadic travellers, and many Europeans consider them beggars and thieves. The economic downturn, along with rumors of changing EU labor laws, has brought more Roma from Eastern to Western Europe over the last two years.
Sarkozy's critics accuse him of mounting the repatriation campaign to shore up flagging poll numbers. "When you are in a downturn, it is convenient to blame someone," said Rob Kushen, executive director of the Budapest-based European Roma Rights Center, according to Time magazine. "Europe is for many a beacon of human rights, but, unfortunately for the Roma, this ideal and promise is a myth."
But Sarkozy's government argues that Reding crossed a line on Tuesday with her veiled reference to the Nazis, who forcibly relocated millions of Roma and Sinti before and during World War II, and exterminated half a million of them.
Sarkozy finds lacerating criticism as well as unexpected support from German commentators on Wednesday.
The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:
"EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding will tolerate no 'discrimination on the basis of ethnic origin or race.' No one can doubt that the current French campaign to move Roma back to their respective homelands -- supposedly under their own free will -- is based on racial difference. What other criteria will France use to determine which people it wants to expel?"
"If the French government succeeds, there will be intense new pressure on legal safeguards erected in southern EU nations to bring rights for Roma up to par with those of other members of society. And neighboring western EU nations might imitate France as soon as their Roma populations expand. The EU's ideals of equality and human rights will become a farce and a technocratic monstrosity if they can't be applied to all the citizens of Europe."
The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung argues:
"It's malicious of Reding to condemn the clearing of illegal camps and the eviction of Romanian and Bulgarian (that is, European) citizens with the remark that such a thing is morally intolerable 'after World War II.' Ms. Reding has disqualified herself with this comparison to the Nazi era."
"After a little reflection, it might have occurred to her that postwar Europe has not been free of ethnically motivated persecution. Yet no one with a minimum of understanding would compare the French effort with, say, the massacre of Srebrenica. Viviane Reding has exhausted her credibility. If she doesn't realize as much, and apologize, she needs to resign, before she does lasting damage to the relationship between the EU and France."
The left-leaning Berliner Zeitung writes:
"Declarations of bankruptcy, as a rule, are made with sagging shoulders and humble expressions. In Brussels on Tuesday, it was evident that there were other ways to do it. EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding gave a furious and remarkable speech ... For Brussels, it was an unheard-of spectacle. But it was also hard to deny that Reding and her boss, Jose Manuel Barroso, were already beaten. All summer they've allowed themselves to be fooled by President Sarkozy and his aides. They didn't dare to complain when the French government began to banish EU citizens from France. Now an EU report has discovered that France indeed has acted systematically against an entire people -- the Roma."
"The European Commission is the protector of European treaties. For weeks it refused to notice the obvious. Now Barroso can no longer evade an open conflict with Sarkozy, and Reding faces the question of whether she's equal to her job as commissioner for justice and fundamental rights."
-- SPIEGEL ONLINE Staff
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