Europe's Roma population has been at the center of EU and broader international, debates concerning immigration, racial, religious and other issues since July this year when French President Nicolas Sarkozy launched a crackdown on unauthorized Gypsy camps in his country.
Sarkozy's pursuit of illegal Roma immigrants in France and his efforts to return them to their countries of origin have also had resonance across the Atlantic. Earlier this month, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination called on Paris to avoid what it called the unjustified expulsion of Roma people. Governing bodies of the European Union have also urged restraint on the part of the French leader.
Mr Sarkozy, and France itself, now face criticism and condemnation not just from the left, human rights activists and from the opposition, but also from the leaders of the Catholic Church, the Episcopal Church, and even the Chief Rabbi. But the French president remains adamant and is determined to follow through on his offensive. In keeping with his declared plans to dismantle 300 illegal Roma camps, he has already expelled about 1,000 Gypsy "sans papiers," as illegal immigrants are known in France. Most have been deported to Romania and Bulgaria but some of these European "nomads" have returned to Serbia. But we are not talking about thousands or tens of thousands.
Government measures involving an issue as sensitive as the forced re-settlement of people across national borders are bound to provoke accusations of racial and ethnic discrimination. Savvy EU officials are increasingly cautious in handling immigration-related problems and any issue that may cost them votes and risks turning into a real headache.
Sarkozy's anti-Roma campaign has now turned immigration into a pan-European issue: One which EU officials in Brussels are uncomfortable about confronting. While some Europeans may be fans of Gypsy song, there is no particular love across Europe for these travelers who do not recognize national borders. And on an every-day level they give Europe a real headache, since their lifestyle and less-than-legal ways of earning a living conflict with the accepted norms of European society. According to a recent nation-wide survey conducted by France's Figaro newspaper, 65% of the population support President Sarkozy's clampdown on the Roma "sans-papiers" and 69% agree that the makeshift Roma camps set up by illegal immigrants across the country should be dismantled.
On an issue as sensitive as illegal immigration, Sarkozy has one important advantage over most of his fellow French politicians. The 23rd president of France and the 6th president of the Fifth Republic, Mr Sarkozy is the son of a Hungarian immigrant, and can therefore get away with statements and policies that would be interpreted as "xenophobic" if made by a pure French counterpart. Sarkozy's origins allow him to act from a position of strength on the immigration issue, defying Western liberalism and political correctness.
Next week, Sarkozy is expected to present his policies to an informal gathering of EU interior ministers that he is to host in Paris. Not all member states feature on the guest list. Only Italy, Spain, Germany, Belgium, Greece, and the United Kingdom will be present at the September 6 event. Canada's top interior official is also expected to show up. That country is no stranger to problems associated with Roma immigration as many Gypsies from Hungary and the Czech Republic seek asylum here. A senior security official from the U.S. will also be invited.
This is just the first in a whole string of immigration-related meetings scheduled for September. In the middle of this week, Sarkozy and his team will meet with EU leaders in Paris to try to explain his controversial policies to them. Ahead of this meeting, Prime Minister Francois Fillon said that if only it takes the trouble to study those policies in-depth, Brussels would see that they are not in breach of any EU legislation.
On September 13-14, the Belgian capital will host a ministerial conference on illegal immigration, and on October 21-22, Paris will host a conference of chief police officials from France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Poland and the UK. At this last event, the French side is expected to come out with a proposal to establish a Euro-Atlantic task-force on clandestine immigration.
Clearly, the French leader is concerned about this issue, and wants it to feature prominently on the EU agenda. But officials in Brussels don't seem particularly enthusiastic about Sarkozy's initiatives, as they know that by supporting his radical line, they open themselves up to attacks from the left-wing media.
France is not the first or indeed the only country to address the issue of illegal Roma immigrants. Others prefer to deal with it on the sly, though, without drawing too much attention to it. The incumbent French president is being so openly pro-active on illegal immigration not least because this is one of the few issues that could secure him electoral support when he stands for reelection in 2012.
Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands also look set to toughen their immigration regulations and expel illegal immigrants.
Berlin has announced plans to deport some 12,000 Roma people currently staying in Germany to Kosovo. Many Roma families settled there in the wake of NATO airstrikes on the former Yugoslavia in 1999. The children born to them since are German speakers who don't understand Serbo-Croat or Albanian, so they will face difficulties assimilating into the former Serbian province.
Copenhagen's City Hall also plans to "clear" the Danish capital of the hundreds of Roma re-settlers from Eastern Europe. Anti-Roma purges are on the cards in Belgium, as well.
In France itself, this is not the first attempt to rid the country of illegal Roma immigrants. In 2009, some 10,000 "sans-papiers" of Gypsy origin were deported to Bulgaria and Romania. What makes the current wave of deportation particularly controversial, though, is the fact that Sarkozy has for the first time officially linked the country's mounting crime rate with this "invasion" of Roma people from the East. According to the French Interior Ministry, Gypsy criminality in the country has grown 138% on last year.
Perhaps the most striking element of this story is that the Roma immigrants being deported from France are not protesting against this measure in any way. Many confess to reporters off-the-record that they are only too glad to get the cash, in the form of compensation from the French authorities (the rate is set at 400 euros for an adult and 100 euros for a child). And in six months' time, they will in any case be able to return, they say.
Bulgaria and Romania accepting the deportees are also unwilling to make any fuss about it as having their Schengen accession bids rejected on France's veto is the last thing these new EU members want now.
Neighboring Italy, meanwhile, is backing Sarkozy's campaign to the hilt. Roberto Maroni, Interior Minister in Silvio Berlusconi's cabinet, affiliated with the far-right, anti-immigrant Northern League party, has announced that at the September 6 meeting in Paris, Italy will propose that all Europeans living in an EU country other than their country of origin should be deported to their country of origin if they prove unable to provide for themselves and their families and simply live off the host state's welfare system.
RIA Novosti political commentator Andrei Fedyashin
The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.