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Brussels blinks in legal row with Sarkozy over Roma expulsion

The European Commission yesterday attempted to avoid a collision with one of the most powerful EU states by taking only limited action against France following its expulsions of Roma gypsies.

After a lengthy and stormy meeting of the Brussels executive, the 27 commissioners tried to avoid an ugly further confrontation with President Nicolas Sarkozy by postponing immediate legal action on the Roma issue itself. Instead, Brussels will send a warning letter on a secondary issue: France’s failure to transpose all EU rules on free movement of European citizens into French law.

To the annoyance of some commissioners, and at the insistence of the Commission President, Jose Manuel Barroso, a threat of legal action against France for mass expulsions of Roma from eastern Europe was postponed. Instead, the Commission will send a letter to Paris seeking further “clarifications” of its Roma policy.

On the more academic point of the inadequacies of French laws on free movement, the Commission threatened to take legal proceedings within one month which could end in the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg. Although this is embarrassing for France, it is nothing like the humiliation of a direct Brussels action against its deportation of Roma. President Sarkozy can reasonably claim a victory.

Since the beginning of the year France has sent home, by force or with a Euros 300 voluntary payment, over 8,000 Roma who have exercised their limited EU free movement rights to migrate from Romania or Bulgaria. Since early August, almost 100 illegal Roma camps have been bulldozed as part of a high-profile campaign ordered by President Sarkozy in person in a speech in Grenoble in late July.

France insists that it has a right to expel jobless Roma who stay for longer than three months or to deport any EU citizens who become a threat to public order. Paris insists, despite Mr Sarkozy’s speech targeting the Roma, that it is not going after an entire ethnic group. Such a policy would directly infringe EU free movement law.

President Sarkozy was drawn into an unseemly slanging match with Brussels last week after a leaked government circular suggested that there was an official French policy to make a public spectacle of dismantling Roma camps. The circular spoke on nine different occasions of Roma expulsions as a “priority” and ordered officials to notify the interior ministry in advance of any “large” mediagenic clearances of Roma sites.

After this embarrassing leak, the European juistice commissioner Viviane Reding, accused Paris of lying and compared the French campaign against the Roma to Nazi behaviour during the Second World War. In angry exchanges at an EU summit last Wednesday, President Sarkozy accused Ms Reding of “insulting” and “wounding” France.

By turning defence into furious attack, the French president evidently hoped to play to anti-Brussels feeling at home and to discourage the Commission from taking formal legal action. France later sent a letter expaining that the leaked circular had been a “mistake” and had been withdrawn. There was no question of Roma being targeted as an ethnic group, Paris said. Only individual Roma found to be a threat to public order would be expelled.

On this basis, Mr Barroso argued yesterday for a period of reflection and calm. Ms Reding wanted tougher action against France but eventually agreed to give way.

After meeting for more than two hours, the EU executive decided to send a warning letter in one month on the compatability of EU and French free movements laws. On the more inflammatory Roma question, the Commission decided to “send a formal notification letter with a number of detailed questions ... with a view to make sure there is legal certainty” about what France is doing.