They are the underclass, the outcasts, but over the past few weeks, the Roma who make up Europe's largest minority have been the center of attention, because of France's recent program of forcibly sending them back to their home countries. Amid criticism from the international community and even some from within his own government, French President Nicolas Sarkozy has forged ahead with the expulsions, so far sending almost 1,000 Roma migrants (also called Gypsies) back to Bulgaria and Romania and inspiring several other European countries to take similar steps.
The European Union had stayed quiet until this week, when it made the rare move of publicly rebuking France. On Thursday, Sept. 9, in a resolution that was passed by 337 votes to 245, the Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) told Paris to "immediately suspend all expulsions of Roma," saying they "amounted to discrimination."
Although their demands are not legally binding, the MEPs said that "mass expulsions are prohibited" under E.U. law, "since they amount to discrimination on the basis of race and ethnicity." Belgian MEP and former Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt said it was unacceptable for politicians to be "tempted by populist, racist and xenophobic policies," while German MEP Martin Schulz, head of the Parliament's powerful socialist group, lamented, "The country that gave us liberté, égalité and fraternité has taken a different, regrettable path today."
The E.U.'s comments followed European Commission President José Manuel Barroso's veiled criticism of France on Tuesday in his first-ever State of the Union address to MEPs. Without mentioning France by name, Barroso said European states should not "reawaken the ghosts of Europe's past." Earlier in the week, in a leaked interim report, the Commission had questioned whether France was meeting the E.U.'s legal requirements with its deportations notably, whether case-by-case assessments of the deportees were being made and underlined that measures singling out a specific ethnic group are illegal.
Speaking in Bucharest, where he pledged that France would help Romania integrate the Roma into their home country, Immigration Minister Eric Besson on Thursday brushed off the criticisms by accusing the Parliament of "exceeding its prerogatives," adding that Paris would not bow to a "political diktat." "We shouldn't expect this to change French policy," says Piotr Kaczynski of the Centre for European Policy Studies, a Brussels-based think tank. "Sarkozy has done what he wanted. It has been an easy distraction for him at a time when his popularity is low. But for Europe, this whole affair has been a failure."
Indeed, there is little that European institutions can do against a determined government: the E.U. has no authority to interfere with the internal affairs of national governments, as long as they don't impinge on community rights. So E.U. efforts are of the softer variety. This year marks the halfway point of Europe's "Decade of Roma Inclusion," an awareness campaign launched in 2005. And earlier this year, the European Commission started a program that dedicates millions of euros to helping Roma overcome problems of discrimination, poverty, bad housing and poor health.
But campaigns against the Roma have spread across Europe. The latest French offensive recalls Italy's "security package" of 2008, which led to the dismantling of Roma camps and the deportation of migrants who could not prove they had regular employment. In the past two years, Germany, Britain, Sweden, Denmark and Belgium have also taken action against the Roma or stated an intention to do so. Rob Kushen, executive director of the European Roma Rights Center in Budapest, says anti-Roma prejudice has always been latent but that the economic crisis has given it an edge. "When you are in a downturn, it is convenient to blame someone," he says. "Europe is for many a beacon of human rights, but, unfortunately for the Roma, this ideal and promise is a myth. It's a tragedy, and things have gotten worse violence, segregation, abuse, evictions and destruction of their homes have all accelerated."
It is in Eastern Europe, where most of the Roma are based, that discrimination is fiercest. In Hungary's parliamentary elections last April, the far-right Jobbik party, which calls for Roma to be forced into segregated camps, came in third, winning almost 17% of the vote. In Slovakia in August, a gunman killed six members of a Roma family in what appeared to be a racially motivated slaughter. And it was only last year that the Czech government finally apologized for the illegal sterilization of Roma women, a practice that rights groups say carried on until 2003.
While the E.U.'s rules on freedom of movement have encouraged many to seek work and sanctuary in the West, even in richer nations they are often reduced to begging, crime and prostitution. The French expulsions merely confirm how unwelcome they are right across Europe.
Hungarian MEP Lívia Járóka, whose father was a Roma musician, says France's actions reveal ugly impulses that the E.U. has been unable to overcome. "I was hoping that Europe would wake up earlier," she says. For Járóka, Europe's inability to face up to its anti-Roma prejudice is a sad indictment of its claims to equality and tolerance. "The E.U.'s slogan is 'unity in diversity,' " she says. "But it simply hasn't been defending these values."