September 16, 2010 / 6:17 PM / 7 years ago

Sarkozy, EU leader clash over Roma dispute

<p>An immgration officer checks list as Roma families wait to board in the bus to Lille Airport for their flight to Romania on a voluntary repatriation scheme September 16, 2010.Pascal Rossignol</p>

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - French President Nicolas Sarkozy clashed angrily with the head of the European Commission on Thursday over Paris's expulsion of Roma migrants, overshadowing other issues at an EU summit.

Sarkozy and Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso had a lengthy and heated exchange of words during a discussion over lunch with EU leaders about France's removal of 8,000 Roma migrants from illegal camps, diplomats said.

Sarkozy later hit back at criticism of his government by the executive Commission, telling a news conference that Commission officials had been vicious in their handling of the matter, and said he would not stand for it.

He said he was particularly irate that EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding had evoked memories of World War Two when accusing France this week of breaking EU law over the expulsions, and said her insinuation was unacceptable.

"All the heads of state and government were shocked by the extreme views of the vice president of the Commission," he said, describing the lunch discussion, and adding that Barroso had distanced himself from Reding's "distortions of history."

Despite the confrontation, Sarkozy said he now considered the matter closed, and the EU appeared determined to draw a line under the affair.

But it is unlikely to end quickly because the Commission has said it intends to take legal action against Paris within weeks for possible breach of EU laws on the free movement of citizens.

Barroso told a separate news conference the Commission had a duty to protect EU law, indicating that he would be pushing ahead with possible legal proceedings.

MIGRATION PROBLEMS

The dispute relates to France's stepped-up removal of Roma migrants this summer, part of what Sarkozy has called a crackdown on crime. The policy involves offering Roma families a financial incentive to return to Romania and Bulgaria.

The row has underscored differences in Europe over how to deal with problems related to immigration, persistent unemployment and ethnic minorities, particularly at a time of economic slowdown and social hardship.

Tensions between the Commission and France, one of the most influential EU member states, could also have an impact on talks in other areas of EU policy.

Human rights groups, the Catholic Church and some French ministers have been highly critical of the expulsions, calling them an effort by Sarkozy to boost his flagging popularity at a time of highly unpopular budget cuts.

The European Commission was at first reluctant to be involved in the issue, seeing it as the responsibility of a member state. But after sustained pressure from the European Parliament, Reding criticized France in unusually tough terms.

"This is a situation I had thought Europe would not have to witness again after the Second World War," she said on Tuesday.

That prompted a furious response from France's European affairs minister, and then Sarkozy.

Under EU law, Roma are free to move anywhere in the union and stay for up to three months. After that, they must have found work or be paying into a social security system. Many do not and are frequently marginalized in their host EU countries.

Westward migration of Roma from eastern Europe has increased in recent years, since the EU expanded its borders in 2004 and 2007 to include states from the former Soviet bloc. Their biggest community is still in Romania.

Editing by Charles Dick

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