The European Commission has what could be called a ‘Condolence-O-Matic’ machine. Given the occasion of some wretched or not-quite-so-wretched tragedy or anniversary of a commonly agreed (but, crucially, non-controversial) historic injustice, Brussels copies and pastes in press-release form almost identical messages of condolence, regret and remembrance, whether the occasion be the anniversary of Kristallnacht, a Belgian train wreck, floods in Pakistan or the death of Michael Jackson.
But there was no solemn communique of sympathy on this year’s Roma Extermination Remembrance Day on 2 August. The day marks the 66th anniversary of the corralling of 2,897 men, women and children into the Zigeunerfamilienlager, or ‘gypsy family camp’, at Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1944. And this summer it came amid a fresh wave of persecution meted out to Europe’s Roma community and travellers by some of the most powerful member states in the union.
The week before, French president Nicolas Sarkozy announced he was to destroy some 300 Roma encampments and cleanse France of around 700 Roma adults and children, later upped to 850. While human rights groups note a chilling echo of les rafles, the French round-ups of Jews during the second world war, the Elysee Palace claims the repatriations are voluntary, as the government is paying each adult EUR300 (plus EUR100 per child) to return to Romania or Bulgaria.
From September, the government is to store the fingerprints of those who have enjoyed an ‘assisted repatriation’ in a biometric database in order to stop them from receiving any such ‘assistance’ in the future, should they return to France, as by EU law they can do immediately.
Much ink has been spilt over Paris’s anti-ziganist ethnic cleansing, but Germany, Denmark and Sweden have been engaged in much the same behaviour, albeit more quietly and with not with the same law-and-order, vote-seeking pronouncements from their capitals.
That same week, Germany announced that it wants to expel 12,000 gypsies, including 6,000 children and adolescents, back to Kosovo, whence they had fled in the wake of the break-up of Yugoslavia, accused of collaboration with Serbia. Headlines in Sweden revealed how the government was in violation of domestic and EU law for deporting Roma for begging.
Meanwhile, the city of Copenhagen was asking the Danish government for assistance, including the use of force, to expel Roma. And a caravan of 700 travellers was chased out of Flanders to take up temporary residence in Belgium’s French-speaking Walloon region. Local authorities there gave them only days before they had to move on once more.
Beyond the pale
Nomads of any description remain beyond the pale. At the end of July, the UK saw a fresh wave of evictions and court actions against gypsies and Irish travellers as Eric Pickles, communities and local government minister, announced plans to give police new powers to evict and arrest people for trespass on public land.
The latest wave of cleansing comes atop a 2008 state of emergency declared in Italy that continues to this day, whereby thousands of Roma have been evicted. Two years ago the European Commission shot down Italian plans to expel EU citizens facing two-year jail sentences – but it gave the all-clear to a scheme to fingerprint Roma, including children.
Politicians in Italy routinely fulminate against the community. In the same year, interior minister Roberto Maroni of the farright Northern League declared: ‘All Romany camps will have to be dismantled right away, and the inhabitants will be either expelled or incarcerated.’ When a mob attacked a camp in Naples with Molotov cocktails two months later, he responded: ‘That is what happens when gypsies steal babies, or when they commit sexual violence.’
In eastern Europe, from whence so many Roma are fleeing, the situation is dire. The Czech Republic engages in a practice of automatically sending Roma children to ‘special schools’ for the mentally handicapped. One bright spot has been in neighbouring Slovakia, whose new government in August pledged to end the practice – although the ultra-free market ideology of the coalition makes it unlikely that Bratislava will be willing to provide the economic resources so that Roma children can be integrated into mainstream schools.
Bulgarian and Romanian Roma face forced evictions, poverty, high unemployment and low literacy levels. In Hungary, where the openly anti-gypsy, far-right Jobbik party won 17 per cent of the vote in the recent general election, eight Roma have been murdered by individuals thought to be linked to the party’s Magyar Garda paramilitary wing.
In late August, France announced it would hold an informal meeting of interior ministers in September from four of the larger EU member states, Italy, Germany, Spain and the UK, as well as Greece, a major transit point for migrants trying to enter Europe, to discuss ‘migration’. In a highly unusual move, Paris also invited Canada’s conservative immigration minister, Jason Kenney, as Ottawa currently has ongoing arguments with the Czech Republic and Hungary over the number of Roma from the two countries applying for refugee status. Romania and Bulgaria, home to many of Europe’s Roma migrants, were conspicuously absent.
Where is the EU?
Where is the European Commission in all this? The EU has considerable powers to put a stop to these rafles nouvelles, in a way that no actors had during the second world war. Article 7 of the EU Treaty states that in cases of a ‘serious and persistent breach’ of human rights, penalties up to the withdrawal of voting rights in the European Council and even expulsion from the union can be imposed.
Amnesty International believes now is time to act. ‘The EU, under the Lisbon Treaty articles 2, 6 and 7 has the responsibility to address human rights within the 27 member states,’ says Susanna Mehtonen, the group’s executive officer for legal affairs in the EU.
But the European Commission wants to stay as far away as possible from the issue. Pressed by journalists, the spokesman for Viviane Reding, the EU justice commissioner, said: ‘When it comes to Roma and the possibility of expelling them, this is up to the member states to deal with, in this case France, and for them to decide how they are going to implement the law.’
When the Charter of Fundamental Rights came into force with the passage of the Lisbon Treaty last year, the EU heralded the moment as a new dawn for human rights in Europe. Throughout the campaign to convince the Irish to vote in favour of Lisbon, the charter was repeatedly invoked to win over progressives unnerved by the treaty’s pro-market bias.
But the charter, the commission now clarifies, is not a bill of rights for citizens. Rather, it is just an instrument covering two very narrow areas: acts of the EU institutions themselves and EU member states when they implement EU law. The moves of France and other countries in this case thus lie outside its responsibility, the commission insists.
Privately, commission officials are well aware of the fact that the situation is grave, and even, as one official who did not want to be named put it, that France’s policy is entirely a populist response to Sarkozy’s poor support in the polls. But, ‘it is possibly the most sensitive issue there is,’ the official added, so ‘a decision was made to give a very institutional response.’
Towards the end of August, however, Commissioner Reding finally issued a statement saying: ‘I regret that some of the rhetoric that has been used in some member states in the past weeks has been openly discriminatory. Nobody should face expulsion just for being Roma.
‘Europe is not just a common market – it is at the same time a community of values and fundamental rights. The European Commission will watch over this.’
Whether Reding acts on her words or they just come from the same emotionally hollow source that feeds the Condolence-O-Matic remains to be seen.
Leigh Phillips is Red Pepper’s Europe correspondent