A one-day summit held 16 September will be remembered for a dramatic clash between Nicolas Sarkozy and José Manuel Barroso over the expulsions of Roma by France. In an institutional crisis that is still ongoing, the French president spoke of an "insult" to his nation, while the European Commission tried to show a new, more courageous face.
According to witnesses, only Italian President Silvio Berlusconi backed Sarkozy "in substance" over the legality of Roma expulsions during the heated discussion, held over lunch on Sarkozy's initiative.
Various EU leaders present around the table described the exchange in different terms.
UK Prime Minister David Cameron said there was a "lively exchange" between Sarkozy and Commission President José Manuel Barroso over lunch.
"Sarkozy made a strong point defending France's position," said one envoy, cited by Reuters.
"José Manuel Barroso stood up and said he was not happy with the current situation in France. Sarkozy replied in a sharp manner."
Reding in the firing line
The bitter row had been brewing for several days.
On Tuesday (14 September), EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding threatened to launch a legal procedure against France for expelling Roma living illegally in campsites. One of the sentences in her statement was interpreted by Paris as comparing the discrimination of Roma with the deportation of Jews and gypsies in World War II.
She later apologised for the misplaced sentence and the rest of her statement was supported by Barroso, who said he "personally backed" his commissioner.
In a press conference after the summit, Sarkozy said "the totality of heads of state and government had been shocked by the outrageous words of Vice-President Reding".
He added that President Barroso had "totally dissociated himself" from Reding's comments.
"I don't wish to fuel a polemic. Ms. Reding has apologised for her gravely insulting words. Let's end it here," Sarkozy said.
In fact, Reding had apologised for a misplaced reference to World War II in her statement, but she and Barroso stood by the rest of her criticism relating to the conformity of France's explusions with EU anti-discrimination law.
Other EU leaders appeared unanimous in scolding Reding for her misplaced statement.
"The Commission should choose its language more carefully and speak in a respectful way. I do note that the commissioner [Reding] has withdrawn her remark," said UK Prime Minister David Cameron.
Cameron repeated that the lunchtime discussion on the Roma issue was "quite lively" but moved to put the EU executive back in its box, saying the Commission was entitled to comment on the proper implementation of European law, provided that the tone is appropriate.
He also said countries had the right to expel immigrants who break the law. German Chancellor Angela Merkel's words with respect to Reding's WWII statements were no less strong. "Reding's tone and choice of words was inappropriate," she said, showing her support for her French partner and insisting that public officials treat each other with more respect.
"Sarkozy even told Reding himself that the commissioner can check if the French position on the Roma complies with EU law or not," the chancellor added.
Sarkozy indeed said he would accept the Commission's objections if France's tough policy on illegal Roma settlements was found to breach EU law. "If it were proved that we made a mistake, we would rectify it," he said.
"The Commission is in its role of asking questions, of checking whether the letter and the spirit of the treaties have been respected," Sarkozy continued. But he added: "I don't think a European commissioner is in her role in talking in a way that embarrasses her own colleagues."
However, German sources said Merkel had not backed Sarkozy "on substance" and denied statements that the German chancellor had expressed her intention to follow France's example in dismantling Roma camps.
Commission to propose Roma strategy
The summit concluded with an invitation for the European Commission to put together a strategy for the Roma.
Traian Băsescu, president of Romania, the EU country which hosts the largest Roma community, said two plans had been agreed for the Roma: "For them to earn money through employment and for them to access education so they can integrate themselves and their future generations."
"There are no solutions yet, but destroying campsites is not the answer," Băsescu fumed.
Basescu also called the Roma "nomads", implying that the strategy to integrate the Roma should differ from the usual social measures for vulnerable groups.
Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov also called the Roma a "nomadic tribe" and said his country did not want to be involved in any way in the controversy.
Borissov also told the press that he had supported the proposal by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban that "money should be given to Governments, not to NGOs" which help the integration of Roma.
Asked by EurActiv to clarify if he implied that NGOs helping the Roma were corrupt, Borissov said he was only repeating what his Hungarian colleague had said and that he agreed with him.
Barroso vs. Sarkozy: Depiction of a clash
Several sources present at the summit meeting gave accounts of how the row between Sarkozy and Barroso erupted during a lunchtime discussion over France's Roma policy.
The debate on the Roma, which had lasted about an hour in total according to various sources, saw a clash between an aggressive Sarkozy and a forceful Barroso, who told the French president that the Commission was going "do its duty and move forward" with a legal procedure against Paris.
Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov was first to report the incident in the Council atrium where journalists are seated, describing the vivid exchange as "a scandal". Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker later described the verbal exchange between Sarkozy and Barroso as "virile".
A low-point was apparently reached when Barroso refused to apologise for Reding's statements comparing France's Roma expulsions to the deportation of Jews in World War II. He reportedly described Sarkozy's attempt to "create agitation" around Reding's comments as "useless rhetoric".
The loud noises from the French president that came in response to Barroso's attack were audible from the corridor, witnesses told EurActiv.
According to people present in the room, no-one except Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi had spoken in defence of Sarkozy on the substance of the conflict – the issue of whether France's Roma expulsions were in line with EU law. German Chancellor Merkel in particular had given her absolute support to the Commission, the sources said.
Commission representatives present at the meeting also conveyed the message that the strategy of the Sarkozy camp of distracting attention from the real issues was strongly lamented by many.
An EU official offered to EurActiv his interpretation of how the dispute had broken out. "Sarkozy was caught with his pants down [on Roma settlements] and now he is trying to blame somebody else." He agreed to be quoted, but asked not to be named.
Speaking to the press after the summit, European Commission President José Manuel Barroso only touched upon the issue when asked, making three points. First, he reiterated his statement made the previous day, when he said he "personally backed" Commissioner Reding in her criticism of France. Secondly, he stressed that discrimination on the basis of ethnicity was unacceptable in the EU. And thirdly, he said that "others" should also think ofapologising for misplaced statements, as Reding had done.
Answering questions from journalists who asked him why Bulgaria was silent over the issue, Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov said angrily: "You want me to drag the country into something that doesn't exist, so that it would prevent us from [joining the] Schengen [passport-free zone]."
He was also categorical that Bulgaria could join Schengen without Romania. "We are not a federation with Romania and I don't know why we should be examined together," he said. "Sarkozy promised me that Bulgaria would not be dragged into this common bunch," he added, hinting that he expected Bulgaria to be rewarded by France for not raising objections to its treatment of Roma.
EurActiv asked Borissov if the real problem in joining Schengen was not the fact that Bulgaria is still being monitored by the EU. At this point, Borissov frowned and left the press area.
On the same issue, French State Secretary for European Affairs Pierre Lellouche recently said that the view of many governments was that a country under EU monitoring for law enforcement deficiencies could not control the Union's external borders.
Many Roma from Eastern Europe moved to the West following the EU's enlargement, creating tensions particularly in Italy.
An estimated 15,000 Roma from Romania and Bulgaria currently live in France. The French government is presently expelling large numbers of them in groups, when they are found to be staying in illegal campsites.
France is insisting that it measures are not discriminatory and are intended to protect the security of its citizens and public order.
But Viviane Reding, vice-president of the European Commission responsible for justice and fundamental rights, said she intended to launch a legal procedure against France for specifically discriminating against the Roma in its policy of evacuating illegal campsites.