EU heads for explosive summit as Roma row hots up

15th September 2010, Comments 0 comments

Europe heads for a fireball summit Thursday with France furious over attacks on its expulsion of Roma Gypsies and trouble brewing over how to prevent a repeat of the Greek debt crisis.

A slanging match between French President Nicolas Sarkozy and the European Union took an explosive turn on the eve of the summit, Wednesday, threatening to create one of the most personal storms of the 27-nation bloc's last decade.

Sarkozy reacted furiously after the European Commission compared France's expulsion of Roma Gypsies to the tactics of its World War II pro-Nazi regime.

"He said our policy is right and, as he will explain tomorrow, it's scandalous that Europe expresses itself like this on what France is doing," said Senator Bruno Sido after lunching with the French leader.

France has been under fire for weeks over Sarkozy's controversial drive to deport ethnic Roma living in travelling communities in France back to Romania and Bulgaria, and Paris now faces the threat of European legal action.

An EU founder member proud of its historic legacy as the home of human rights, France reacted with shock when Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding of Luxembourg this week condemned the clampdown in stark terms.

Sarkozy hit back, mockingly suggesting that Luxembourg host the Roma.

"He said he was only applying European regulations, French laws, and France is irreproachable in the matter but that if the Luxembourgers want to take them he had no problem," said Senator Bruno Sido of Sarkozy's UMP party.

Luxembourg retorted in similarly harsh terms, with Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn branding Sarkozy's suggestion "malicious" and insisting that Reding had been speaking for Europe and not simply her homeland.

Foreign ministers from France and Luxembourg are to meet on the sidelines of the one-day summit Thursday in a bid to ease the tension and issue a joint statement.

Originally viewed as a low-key summit to look at a handful of diplomatic issues and ways of averting a new financial crisis, the talks between the 27 European leaders look set to be dominated by human rights.

Divisions are likely to subsist on these fronts too.

European Union chief Herman Van Rompuy has been charged with producing only "nebulous" ideas and few concrete propositions for bringing into line countries whose spending blitzes threaten partners' economies.

Further divisions over plans to offer flood-ravaged Pakistan a string of aid concessions, not to mention Italy's theatrical blocking of a deal to throw open trade with South Korea, mean a cloud is hanging over the first big date of the new EU season.

Some member states are striving to delay Van Rompuy's much-hyped "task force" report on cross-border economic governance, which has an October deadline.

Given that Slovakia has already wriggled out of a commitment to loan Greece money -- an uncomfortable truth euro currency partners prefer so far to gloss over -- the momentum for action has clearly faded in line with the short-term economic outlook.

A "settlement" on EU nations giving each other advance sight of budget plans falls well short of early radical runners now discarded, such as hitting budget busters where it hurts or, as Germany wanted, removing voting rights from the worst offenders.

There is "still quite a bit of disagreement on sanctions", a diplomat told AFP, and "intensive work" is required if concrete decisions due in October are to live up to the fanfare that accompanied the launch of Van Rompuy's first big project.

International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who is throwing in one euro for every two the EU aims at Greece or potentially Ireland, is not happy either.

In a pre-summit nudge, he said that Europe's powerbrokers had to take "courageous measures" to strengthen cross-border economic controls.

The "danger", if they fail, is that European nations will "no longer be able to compete with the world's most dynamic countries", he said this week.

© 2010 AFP

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