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Europe

EU leaders meet amid rancorous Roma issue

Thursday's EU summit in Brussels became a showdown over France’s controversial Roma deportations. There, President Sarkozy pledged to continue with the policy, saying it did not focus on one ethnic group.

Roma gypsies arriving in Romania from France after being deported

Roma gypsies were a sorepoint at EU summit

France's deportation of Roma gypsies has landed on the agenda of the European Council summit in Brussels. After Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding gave an emotional speech blasting the French policy, French President Nicolas Sarkozy used the EU summit to fight back.

"All our heads of state and government were shocked by the outrageous comparisons drawn by the Commission vice president," Sarkozy said in a speech, in which he also defended the French policy and said it was not targeting any specific ethnic group.

Reding had said that the recent expulsions to fellow European Union members Romania and Bulgaria "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" and compared the deportations to World War II-era practices. She also threatened to take legal action against the country.

Reding later apologized and said that she did not mean to link the current deportations to the Holocaust.

EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding

Reding has apologized for her comments

"I regret that my comments were interpreted in a way that diverted attention from the problems we have to solve," she said in a statement released by her office.

The French presidential palace released its own statement "taking note" of the clarification.

A mixed response

The ongoing disagreement has divided EU members.

"The commissioner of course has the right to assess if member states are acting on the basis of the European treaties," said German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Wednesday. "But I think that the tone Mrs. Reding used to bring it forward, and especially the historical comparisons, were not entirely fitting."

Officially, Germany did agree with the heart of Reding's message. "Freedom of movement within the EU applies without conditions, ethnic minorities should not be discriminated against … and basic rights apply," said government spokesman Steffen Seibert.

The Italian government, which launched its own crackdown against Roma camps in 2008, chided Reding for her speech. Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi told the French newspaper Le Figaro that Reding should have "raised the subject in private with French authorities before publicly expressing herself in the way she did."

Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, however, gave Reding his "personal backing."

Documents indicate focus on Roma

French President Nicolas Sarkozy

The French president continued attacking Reding's comparison

More than 1,000 gypsies have been expelled since August, when 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 have expelled the remainder for failing to prove they have the economic means to stay in France.

Sarkozy's government has 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."

Hoping for a 'better tone'

Despite their differing opinions on the expulsions, Sarkozy, Reding, Berlusconi, Barroso and Merkel are all conservative politicians and at the EU level belong to the European People's Party (EPP).

The EPP gathered for a pre-summit meeting outside of Brussels on Wednesday night, where Merkel and Berlusconi joined representatives and leaders from other conservative European governments.

France showed no hint it will back down on the issue, with French Prime Minister Francois Fillon saying after the meeting that, "we will show within the next hours that France perfectly respects EU and national rules."

Merkel told reporters she expected the Roma issue to be raised at Thursday's summit, but said she hoped there would be a "better tone."

Author: Holly Fox (AFP/dpa/Reuters)
Editor: Rob Turner

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