European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso lent his 'personal backing' to the bloc’s justice commissioner on Wednesday, after she slammed French deportations of Roma.
Barroso tried to balance rebuke with reconciliation
Jose Manuel Barroso on Wednesday sought to defuse a row between the EU and France over President Nicolas Sarkozy's policy of deporting travelling Roma citizens, sometimes referred to as gypsies.
The European Commission president came out in support of Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding's overall sentiments about the French actions, but said that she had gone too far in appearing to make comparisons with Hitler's Germany.
In an emotional speech, Reding said she was "appalled" by the French measures, and suggested they "gave rise to a situation (she) thought Europe would not have to witness again after the Second World War."
"One or other of the expressions used in the heat of the moment may have given rise to misunderstanding," Barroso told reporters at a Wednesday news conference.
"(Justice Commissioner) Reding did not want to establish any parallels between what happened in the Second World War and the present."
Barroso, who was to meet with President Nicolas Sarkozy on Wednesday evening ahead of an EU summit on Thursday, also insisted that he supported Reding's criticism of the French policy, saying she had his "personal backing."
Many French citizens think the policy is undemocratic
"Prohibition of discrimination based on ethnic origin is one of the EU's fundamental values, and the EU will do whatever is necessary to ensure respect for these principles," Barroso said, indicating that there would be an investigation into the French policy.
Sarkozy hits back
At a meeting with French lawmakers on Wednesday, President Sarkozy reportedly promised to address the issue at Thursday's EU summit, and mockingly suggested that Viviane Reding's home country of Luxembourg could house the Roma citizens instead.
"He said that he was just implementing European regulations and French laws. He said that France's actions were beyond reproach in this matter, but that if the people of Luxembourg want to take them, that wouldn't be a problem either," a senator for Sarkozy's center-right UMP party, Bruno Sido, said.
"He said that our policy is right and, as he will explain tomorrow, it's scandalous that Europe expresses itself like this on what France is doing."
Roma are given 300 euros for leaving without making a fuss
The government in Luxembourg has also weighed in, saying that the Justice Commissioner was speaking on behalf of the EU, not her home country, when she made the comments. Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn suggested Sarkozy was making the false connection with Luxembourg intentionally.
"I know that Nicolas Sarkozy already has issues with the people of Luxembourg, but he's gone too far here," Asselborn said in an apparent reference to a long-running debate over banking secrecy between the two neighbors.
"But for what it's worth, personally, I happen to side entirely with the stance presented by the European Commission," the foreign minister concluded.
More than 1,000 Roma have been expelled since August, when President Sarkozy called for the dismantling of unauthorized Roma camps. French ministers say most accepted voluntary repatriation, which includes 300 euros ($390) in compensation towards starting a new life; judges expel the remainder for failing to meet the residence criteria set by the EU.
Sarkozy's government had said it was treating every deportation on a case-by-case basis, but the French position was undermined last week by leaked interior ministry documents suggesting that police had been ordered to make clearing Roma camps "a priority."
Author: Mark Hallam (AFP/dpa)
Editor: Susan Houlton