Wednesday, October 6, 2010

European laws and national interests

It started with what one could term a banal law and order incident. On July 16, in the small village of Saint-Aignan in Central France, a man goes to an ATM at night. He is attacked by two youngsters who escape. The next night, the duo forces two police check-points and threatens the gendarmes present on the spot. One of them, Luigi Duquenet, a 22 year-old gypsy has been charged of petty theft (of Euros 20 or Rs 1200). The two are finally caught and while resisting, Duquenet is beaten up in ‘self-defense’ by the Police. He dies later that night.  The next day, some 50 Romas attack the Saint-Aignan Police Station in retaliation against the death of Duquenet.
Three days later, the French State reacts violently. President Sarkozy declares that “the events of Saint-Aignan demonstrate the problems caused by certain ‘gens du voyage’ (people living in mobile houses and travelling) … and the Romas (gypsies).” Targeting a particular section of the population is not permitted and even though Sarkozy has used the adjective ‘certain’, his words are immediately condemned by human rights groups and the leftist opposition.
A week later, a meeting is held at the Elysée Palace to discuss the situation. Brice Hortefeux, the unpopular Home Minister announces the dismantling of about 600 ‘illegal camps’ occupied in France by the Romas and other ‘gens du voyage’. Hortefeux also states that all Romas who have committed crimes or created law and order problems would be sent back to Bulgaria and Romania (their country of origin).
Thus was triggered an ‘affaire d’état’ (State Affair) which soon snowballed into an international issue. It became the hottest subject for the French media during the summer.
In a speech in Grenoble at the end of July, President Sarkozy made another ‘security’ announcement. He proposed that anti-social elements who had recently acquired French nationality be stripped of their citizenship, if they committed any crime.
How can a nation which has invented the mantra of “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” and was the first of speak of the equality of all citizens now talk a double-tier law (one for ‘true’ French, another for new ones), accused many. Should someone who acquired French citizenship be treated differently from a person who is French by birth?
The Sarkozy government later explained that it would be applicable only in exceptional situations. Then, came the announcement about the Romas living illegally on French territory. The European Commission in Brussels was livid. Since the integration of Romania in the European Union (EU) in 2007, any European citizen can freely circulate within the EU.
It is estimated that there are 16,000 Romas living today in France; in most cases they live in slums (according to Brice Hortefeux, the percentage of crime in the Roma community increased by 138% in one year). In French law, if after three months stay, any foreign citizen has no revenue and no fixed residence, he is subject to deportation.

Which law should prevail, the French or the European?
The main argument of the ‘securitarian’ lobby in Paris is that most of the Romas are in an illegal situation, while opponents speak of human rights and citizens of the EU being deprived of their rights to ‘circulate’.
It appears that the French government was not well prepared for the onslaught of protest, not only from the socialist opposition, but also from the international media who almost unanimously condemned the French move (though no country is ready to accept Romas on their own land). But worse came from the Pope who joined the bandwagon. From his vacation palace in Castel Gandolfo, the Pontiff gave a speech (in French) about European citizens not being able to move wherever they wanted. This was not appreciated by Paris which continued with the expulsions (a large majority of the French population approved of the expulsions).
With persisting criticism and probably fearing negative political collaterals, French Prime Minister Francois Fillon (who is far more popular than the President), announced his decision to Europeanise the issue.
The situation could have diffused if the European Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding from Luxembourg had not made an uncalled for remark comparing the French campaign against the Roma to Nazi behaviour during the world war. She was furious after the leak of a government circular, nominally asking for the deportation of the Romas. She may have had a legal point, but her remarks were in bad taste. The French government reacted swiftly and pretended that the circular was a mistake; Paris wanted to dismantle only the illegal camps, no matter who was living there.
In the meantime, a few hundred Roma were chartered back to Eastern Europe with a small ‘incentive’ of 300 Euros to start a ‘new life’. The problem is that neither the Romanian nor the Bulgarian governments were happy to receive them. 
In Sarkozy’s camp, some voices began to be heard against the drastic measures (not so drastic since most evacuees soon began to return to France). Fillon affirmed that the French policy did not breach any EU directives from Brussels: “The deportations of Roma to their countries of origin made by our country have been made in full compliance with European law.” He added: “France considers that the only long term solution for these fully-fledged European citizens is better economic and social integration, first of all in their country of origin."
According to the website Europolitics: “The EU executive is struggling to shed light on the Romas' right to free movement and the prohibition of the discrimination of which they are victims across Europe.” For the European Commission they have "the same rights under European law as other Europeans."
The Reding episode continued nevertheless to haunt the relations between Paris and Brussels. It culminated with a violent altercation between President Sarkozy and Baroso, the Commission’s President, during a European Council meeting.
This comes at a time when the financial crisis and the high rate of unemployment have exacerbated the xenophobic tendencies in most Western European countries.  
From Italy to the UK, politicians have to listen to local populations often facing precarious situations. A country like France which provides social security and other facilities to its population as well as to the migrants, finds it hard to take on more migrants, especially when they don’t participate in active life. In the same stride, Paris banned ‘active begging’ (mainly targeting the Roma migrants).
Everybody still remember the paranoia around ‘Polish plumbers’ in 2004 during the campaign for the first referendum on the Lisbon Treaty (that the French rejected). The ‘Polish plumber’ was to take away jobs from the local people in Western Europe.
The European Commission in Brussels has now decided to initiate legal proceedings against France for its failure to comply with EU laws guaranteeing free movement of its citizens within the Union. France has until October 15 to ‘integrate’ EU law into its national law.
The EC, however, did not sue France on the more serious charge of discrimination against an ethnicity, only asking Paris for clarifications on the Roma expulsion.
But the European Union has another problem: its coffers are empty. While its budget represented 1,28% of the European GDP in the 1980’s, today it is only 1,02%, with a lot more responsibilities being handled by Brussels. An official of the Commission summarized in the French daily Le Monde: “Europe is a legislative giant, but a budgetary dwarf”.  He adds: “Yesterday, the Finance Ministers did not want to pay; today, they can’t pay’. In these circumstances, the hard line of Ms Reding may not prevail over ‘national’ interests.

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