Nicolas Sarkozy- with his poll ratings dangerously low – is forcibly removing a small Roma community in France. Playing politics with peoples’ lives, he has reinforced his centre right constituency, attracting votes from people who may otherwise have been happier with Jean-Marie Le Pen’s ‘Front National’. As a strategy it’s working. The French polls show as much. But the forced expulsion of European citizens has deeper implications than just polling statistics in France. Instead we should ask: is this model – diverting attention from underperforming economies by persecuting minority populations – to become the standard centre-right practice in Europe?
We must be clear – this action is illegal. Free movement of EU citizens is not an unconditional right. But the expulsion of Romanians without work permits can only take place on grounds of security, a threat to public order or an undue burden on social assistance schemes. Even then, and only then, each case is assessed ‘on an individual and personal basis’.
Sadly, it is clear to the European Commission that the correct legal process hasn’t taken place. No crimes have been committed, and the expulsion essentially amounts to a removal of a group based on their ethnic origin. Three respected, bipartisan Commissioners have come to this conclusion: two from the centre-right, Reding and Malmstrom, and Andor from the Socialists and Democrats. And the Commission has also dismissed Sarkozy’s attempt at PR on the issue – the money being handed out to the Roma is being interpreted by the Commission as simply part of a coercive process.
But there are those who support the expulsion. Members of the European far-right, including the BNP, have defended the French government from within the European Parliament. Not a single French MEP from Sarkozy’s party, the UMP, took the floor however. And this has caused deep embarrassment, because whilst not comparing to the Vichy-Nazi deportations in either scale or purpose, risking media comparisons to the memory of France’s WW2 expulsions doesn’t seem worth it to many in Sarkozy’s cabinet.
In fact, I recently led a delegation to meet Eric Besson, the French Europe Minister. Whilst he stuck firmly to the Sarkozy line in this meeting, he was also visibly nervous. Sarkozy will not worry too much – he sees his actions as popular amongst centre and far right voters in France. As with the burka ban, he knows too that French Socialists may not go out on a limb to make this a national election issue. French Socialists in the European Parliament were uncompromising in their condemnation, but Sarkozy is also a master of putting the centre left on the back foot.
So the expulsions went ahead. How are they relevant to the UK?
Sarkozy has called on the UK, Germany, Italy and Spain to form a ‘super group’, one composed of European member states who will take a grip on immigration policy in way similar to his current policy. European Commissioners were not invited – as no doubt they would mention the rule of law.
Sadly, Sweden and Denmark have also begun less publicised deportations of Roma.
The Roma are the most isolated and misunderstood minority in the EU. They face severe poverty, segregation and discrimination. I have seen for myself Roma poverty in Romania and like many MEPs have been critical of the way Romanian, Bulgarian, Slovakian, Czech and Hungarian governments have also squandered well intentioned EU structural and other funds intended to improve the Roma’s position. These countries are members of the EU – but their governments have swung sharply to the right in recent months, with negative implications for minorities.
We have to watch the UK government closely. We have to see if they will fall in with Sarkozy and other Europeans nations, or stand up for the rule of law, fundamental human rights and the principles of non-discrimination the EU was built on. It is simply too easy, and too ugly, to persecute minorities in rough economic times. If the EU is to work as it was intended, it is not then how much the strongest will benefit that counts, but how the most vulnerable proceed with their rights and well-being intact.