French President Nicolas Sarkozy has said Germany stands behind his country's policy of closing illegal Roma camps. Berlin was quick to dismiss the claims.
Sarkozy says Merkel stands behind his controversial policy
After meeting with Chancellor Angela Merkel on the sidelines of a European Union summit on Thursday, Sarkozy told journalists that his German counterpart had offered her "total and complete support" for his policy of deporting Roma people.
"Mrs. Merkel told me that Germany also intends to start clearing out camps in the coming weeks," Sarkozy said.
However, the Chancellor's office swiftly denied those assertions, saying Merkel had at no point discussed these issues with her French counterpart, either in public or private.
"Germany does support France's criticism of the form and the tone of the statement made by EU Commissioner Reding," government spokesman Steffen Seibert said in Berlin, in a statement consistent with Merkel's earlier comments on the issue, which criticized both France's policy and EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding's controversial speech on the issue earlier this week.
Sarkozy says France will continue deporting immigrants
Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle told German public radio on Friday that Sarkozy "must have misunderstood" what Merkel told him at the summit.
"The chancellor ... informed me about what was said in her talks (with Sarkozy)," Westerwelle told Deutschlandfunk radio, adding: "There was no such announcement by the chancellor. It would run contrary to the German constitution."
Chancellor Angela Merkel herself tried to make light of Thursday's tense atmosphere, praising the summit catering and describing the exchange between Barroso and Sarkozy simply as "a discussion that clearly described the issues."
The German chancellor said the Roma deportations would be addressed again in October, adding that she hoped the EU would now "return to its good, sensible cooperation."
Camp dismantling to continue
The only European leader to openly support Sarkozy's policy of closing illegal camps and deporting their inhabitants is conservative Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.
Sarkozy continues to defend his country's policy of dismantling the camps and deporting their inhabitants.
"We will continue to dismantle the illegal camps, whoever is there," Sarkozy said. "Europe cannot close its eyes to illegal camps."
France has dismantled more than 100 predominantly Roma camps in recent weeks, deporting at least 1,000 EU citizens back to their home countries of Bulgaria and Romania.
In response to the Commission's threat to consider bringing France before the European Court of Justice, Sarkozy said "the Commission has wounded France."
European Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding on Tuesday criticized the policy in an emotional speech, saying it specifically targeted people of a particular ethnic origin and thereby "gave rise to a situation (she) thought Europe would not have to witness again after the Second World War."
"All heads of state and government were shocked by the outrageous comparisons drawn by the Commission vice-president," Sarkozy said of Reding's comments, adding that European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso had "disassociated himself" from Reding's "historical revisionism."
Barroso had, in fact, only distanced himself from Reding's apparent Second World War comparison, insisting in the same speech that his deputy had his "personal backing" for her stance on the present-day French policy.
Barroso again said he opposed the deportations
"It is unacceptable for there to be any kind of discrimination of ethnic minorities," Barroso said after Thursday's talks. "It is true that in the past few days and weeks, we have heard some things said that were out of order … but there are issues of substance to look at here."
A number of leaders at the summit, including the prime ministers of Britain and Bulgaria, reported that Sarkozy and Barroso had a heated exchange on the matter over lunch. Britain's David Cameron described it as "quite lively", while his Bulgarian counterpart, Boyko Borisov, said it was "serious."
According to one envoy, "Sarkozy made a strong point defending France's position. Jose Manuel Barroso stood up and said he was not happy with the current situation in France. Sarkozy replied in a sharp manner."
Sarkozy acknowledged that he had spoken with Barroso over lunch, saying "if anyone kept calm and didn't make exaggerated comments, it was me."
Author: Mark Hallam, Gabriel Borrud (AFP/AP/dpa/Reuters)
Editor: Rob Turner