It was the leak of a memo from the French interior ministry that provoked Viviane Reding, the European commissioner for justice and fundamental rights, to make her forthright condemnation on Tuesday (14 September).
The memo, which instructed police authorities to target Roma, was so embarrassing to the ministry that a revised replacement was issued on Monday (13 September), the same day that it was leaked.
The original memo, issued on 5 August, had instructed police chiefs specifically to prioritise the closure of 300 illegal Roma camps. Reding and her European Commission staff had since 25 August been collecting and analysing information about France’s expulsion of immigrants. There were several meetings at the level of ministers and senior officials, during which the Commission had requested information and the French authorities had responded.
But the existence of the memo had not been disclosed and in at least one meeting both Eric Besson, the immigration minister, and Pierre Lellouche, the EU affairs minister, had assured Reding that the campaign to clear illegal camps was not targeting any specific ethnic group.
Advisers to Reding and José Manuel Barroso, the Commission president, decided that France’s claims could no longer go unchallenged. “The circular was the game-changer,” said one Commission official. Another referred to it as a “smoking gun”.
Reding and Barroso were also infuriated by an assertion made by Lellouche on Monday (13 September) that the French people were the “guardian of the treaties” rather than the Commission.
The decision that Reding should make a statement in the Commission’s press room on Tuesday was finally taken at around midnight on Monday.
What Reding said“I personally have been appalled by a situation which gave the impression that people are being removed…just because they belong to a certain ethnic minority. This is a situation I had thought Europe would not have to witness again after the Second World War…During a formal meeting with French ministers…the Commission received political assurances that specific ethnic groups had not been targeted in France. I can only express my deepest regrets that the political assurances given by two French ministers…are now openly contradicted by an administrative circular issued by the same government…The role of the Commission as guardian of the treaties is made extremely difficult if we can no longer have confidence in the assurances given by two ministers in a formal meeting with two Commissioners and with around 15 senior officials on the table from both sides…This is not a minor offence in a situation of this importance. After 11 years of experience in the Commission, I would even go further: This is a disgrace.
Discrimination on the basis of ethnic origin or race has no place in Europe…I therefore find it deeply disturbing that a member state calls so gravely into question, by the actions of its administration, the common values and the law of our European Union.
I also take issue with the statements made by the French secretary of state for European affairs yesterday questioning the role of the European Commission as guardian of the treaties. The Commission’s role as guardian of the treaties is one of the foundations of the European Union – a Union which is held together not by force, but by respect of the rule of law agree upon by all member states, including France. The Commission’s role as guardian of the treaties is one of the foundations of the European Union – a Union which is held together not by force, but by respect of the rule of law agree upon by all member states, including France.
It is important that not only the words change, but also the behaviour of the French authorities.
I am personally convinced that the Commission will have no choice but to initiate infringement action against France …for a discriminatory application of the free movement directive and …for a lack of transposition of the procedural and substantive guarantees under the free movement directive.
I made it very clear: my patience is wearing thin: enough is enough.
No member state can expect special treatment, especially not when fundamental values and European laws are at stake. This applies today to France. This applies equally to all other member states, big or small, which would be in a similar situation.”
(This is an extract only. To read the full speech, visit EuropeanVoice.com)
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In her statement, Reding attacked these comments as “deeply disturbing”, saying that they called into question the EU’s common values and rule of law.
Reding had come under fire the previous week in the European Parliament, where MEPs accused the Commission of being too slow making its analysis of the legality of French policy.
Reding told MEPs that the Commission had not completed its investigation and said that she had been “assured” that the French government was not violating EU law. Hélène Flautre, a French Green MEP, said that the Commission’s lack of urgency was “disturbing”, and accused Reding and the Commission of “pandering to the French authorities”. Hannes Swoboda, an Austrian centre-left MEP, said his group was “deeply disappointed” with Reding’s failure to present a report.
Having resisted the MEPs’ demands to condemn France, the revelation of the memo left Reding looking foolish.