EU leaders summoned to Brussels yesterday were supposed to be thrashing out ways to improve the union's external relations and develop a more influential and coherent foreign policy. They should have had better things to do with their time than bicker about gypsies. The issue was not even on the agenda. But such is politics in a time of crisis. In France and also in Italy, the only country to come out in support of President Sarkozy after his spat with the Commissioner for Justice, the ballot box beckons, and the hunt for the votes of the fearful and prejudiced is on.
M. Sarkozy's invitation to Viviane Reding to "take the Roma with her to Luxembourg" was provoked by the Commissioner's comparison of France's mass expulsion of gypsies with the policy of Nazi Germany. In one sense the comparison was just: targeting Roma for collective treatment is quite as outrageous as it was for Hitler to target gypsies and Jews, or for any government to scapegoat any group en masse. In another sense, however, it was mistaken. Inspired by his mad ideas about racial superiority and inferiority, Hitler attacked a culturally distinctive minority. Sarkozy and Berlusconi are merely expelling the poorest and weakest of the new immigrants on the basis of popular prejudice. It is hard to know which motivation is more despicable. The Roma have changed substantially since the Second World War. They are still popularly thought of as nomads, but Eastern Europe's Communist regimes forced them to settle down. They only went back on the road when the collapse of Communism brought an end to the guaranteed jobs, homes and schools which had brought them comparative stability and integration.
Hitler was tempted to single them out because they flaunted their non-Aryan values and lifestyles and were thus an offence in the nostrils of racist Germans. Today the great majority of Europe's gypsies have had the folklore beaten out of them by the modern world; no violin music wafts out of their miserable camps. Untold numbers have already disappeared into the mainstream, because the only way to get a job or a house in many countries is to lose the "gypsy" tag. Those now being expelled by M. Sarkozy and Mr Berlusconi lost what protection they had enjoyed with Eastern Europe's post-Communist collapse and moved to countries where their chances of survival were stronger. They are just the poorest of the poor, with a name hanging round their neck that guarantees discrimination. Those who prey politically on such hapless victims should be ashamed.