Roma deportation: a dangerous precedent
For many years now, I’ve used my position as a Labour MEP to highlight a worrying trend – the growth of the far-right in Europe. But I’ve also highlighted how it is the entrance of far- right ideas into the mainstream of European politics that should concern us the most.
This is precisely why the removal of a Roma community has provoked such outrage from myself and other Members of the European Parliament. In forcibly removing a small Roma community from France, French President Nicolas Sarkozy has responded to low poll ratings by running into the arms of the far-right. But the danger is that, as much as Sarkozy has moved to the right, he may also have brought the attitudes and policies of the right firmly into the centre.
Naturally, in deporting Roma, Sarkozy has attracted support from those normally consider more at home with Jean-Marie Le Pen’s ‘Front National’. But the French polls have rewarded Sarkozy and its hard to know exactly how many people are lending their support to the removals because an otherwise controversial policy has been “normalised” by the French state.
And what has been normalised is extremely worrying. This is because the Roma community in question are European citizens. That European citizens have been forcibly removed from any member state, contravening their freedom of movement, is something that has deep implications for Europe.
The free movement of EU citizens – whilst not an unconditional right – is a critical part of EU law. The expulsion of people without work permits can only take place on grounds of a threat to public order, security issues or due to an undue burden on social assistance schemes. Even then, each case should legally be assessed ‘on an individual and personal basis’. In this case, the correct legal process hasn’t taken place: the expulsion essentially amounts to a removal of a group based on their ethnic origin.
The European Commission is now taking legal action against France, sending a clear signal to France that this action was wrong. This is partly in response to pressure from an increasingly powerful European Parliament after the Lisbon Treaty, from which my S&D Group made its feelings on the issue plain, pushing the Commission to act.
But there are those who support the expulsion. And this is where the lines are blurred. Members of the European far-right, including the BNP, predictably defended the French government from the European Parliament. But if the BNP are welcoming the French government’s illegal and frankly racist stance on EU citizenship, associating with the official government position of a major Member State brings the BNP a degree of credibility they should not have.
Sarkozy will not worry too much about aiding the European far right – he sees his actions as popular amongst centre voters in France. As with the burka ban, and changes in naturalised French citizenship, he knows 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.
Instead, Sarkozy will continue to bring his approach into the mainstream of European politics. He has, in fact, 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 a way similar to his current policy. European Commissioners were not invited – as no doubt they would mention the rule of law.
Sadly, ahead of Sarkozy’s plans, 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 I have been extremely critical of the way Romanian, Bulgarian, Slovakian, Czech and Hungarian governments have in some cases squandered well intentioned EU funds intended to improve the Roma’s position. These countries are members of the EU – but their governments have also swung sharply to the right in recent months,
with negative implications for minorities. We are at a cross roads now, one that will decide immigration politics in Europe for a generation. And we should understand why: the mainstream centre of European politics is perilously close to adopting far-right ideas on immigration as the normal terms of debate, with all the implications for the European rule of law, European citizenship and European values that such a potential outcome holds.