Roma and the E.U.

Don’t lie to Viviane Reding. That’s the lesson of this week’s revelation that, contrary to French government assurances that “specific ethnic groups had not been targeted in France,” an Interior Ministry circular had in fact ordered evacuation of camps of “Roma, as a matter of priority.”

Visibly enraged, the European Union’s commissioner for justice, fundamental rights and citizenship pronounced herself “personally convinced that the commission will have no choice but to initiate infringement action against France.”

The commission’s wake-up call to racism in France is welcome. But will outrage lead to legal action? And what about the wave of anti-Roma measures in other E.U. states that the commission has steadfastly ignored until now?

The time it has taken for the commission to react suggests observers should hold their applause. After all, until just a few days ago, commission officials were saying they saw “no intention to target action against the Roma” in France, despite abundant evidence to the contrary.

The French expulsions were publicly launched in late July at the highest levels of the government after a clash between Roma and police in the Loire Valley that led to the shooting death of a youth. President Nicolas Sarkozy proclaimed that those responsible for the clash would be “severely punished” and ordered the government to expel all Roma immigrants.

France’s senior law enforcement official, Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux, dispelled any further doubts about the policy in August, when he told reporters at a Roma campsite in southern France: “One does not apply the law halfway. The law applies to everyone. The Roma community is not above the law, nor is it beneath the law. That means that the objective announced by the president of the republic, that half our country’s illegal camps will be dismantled in three months, will be met.”

Days earlier, the minister had responded to a wave of international criticism by noting, “It’s not a question of expelling Roma because they are Roma.” He then cited crime statistics showing a 138 percent rise in the number of Romanians — overwhelmingly Roma — arrested in Paris last year, mostly for pick-pocketing. Over the past month, nearly all of the many hundreds of people sent back to Eastern Europe have been Roma. And yet, only when written proof forced the commission’s hand did it respond.

The issue, then, is not whether Roma have been targeted — they have — but whether this week’s about-face represents the pique of an individual commissioner or a fundamental shift of policy in Brussels.

Two tests will tell.

First, will the commission take France to court? José Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission, has yet to publicly endorse this step. His silence on the expulsions has been lamentable. Will he now come out in support of his fellow commissioner?

Second, even if the commission follows through in this case, is France a one-off? Or will the commission begin to apply its new-found moral conviction on issues of racial equality to other E.U. states as well?

Take Italy. In May 2008, the interior minister, Roberto Maroni, reportedly declared: “All Roma camps will have to be dismantled right away, and the inhabitants will be either expelled or incarcerated.” Two days later, when a mob of 60 razed a Roma camp in Naples with Molotov cocktails, Maroni quipped: “That is what happens when gypsies steal babies, or when Roma commit sexual violence.”

The same month, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi promulgated a state of emergency defining the presence of “irregular third-country citizens and nomads” — read Roma — as a crisis justifying extraordinary measures. The authorities began evicting Roma from their camps. The emergency decree was extended the following year. The commission has yet to do anything.

Nor are France and Italy alone. In July, Denmark summarily expelled a group of persons identified by Copenhagen’s lord mayor as “criminal Roma.” But once again, there has been no word from Brussels.

In short, the French expulsions are only the most recent, and visible, manifestations of an ingrained prejudice which is poisoning European discourse and undermining European values.

If Commissioner Reding’s umbrage is to result in more lasting change, the commission must formally refer the French expulsions and similarly egregious measures by other governments, to the European Court of Justice. Let the judges make clear that racism has no place in today’s Europe.

James A. Goldston, the founding executive director of the Open Society Justice Initiative and formerly legal director of the Budapest-based European Roma Rights Center.