Roma Gypsy controversy engulfs EU summit
Controversy over France's expulsion of Roma Gypsies on Thursday engulfed a European Union summit originally slated to boost the bloc's profile on the world scene.
As talks kicked off, leaders of the 27-nation bloc announced a historic free trade deal with South Korea, described as the "most ambitious agreement ever".
Help for flood-hit Pakistan and tighter cross-border sanctions for budget bingers were also high on the menu, along with ways for the EU to embrace global powerhouses such as China, Brazil and India.
But on a summit billed as an occasion to highlight the EU's ambition of speaking with a single voice on the world stage, the row between France and the European Commission cast a shadow over the one-day event.
"We're discussing it in the corridors," said European parliament chief Jerzy Buzek when asked if the Roma row had hijacked the talks -- as well as "in the family photo", he added, referring to private off-camera talk afforded leaders during the group picture.
"It's a very deep and serious problem for the European Union as a whole," Buzek said. "This is a moment to treat social exclusion and poverty.
"It's not only a problem for France."
The row turned personal on Tuesday when EU Justice Commissioner Vivane Reding of Luxembourg hit out at France's hard line as a hark-back to World War II deportations.
"A cash handout, a plane ticket to the EU country of origin are not the same as the death camps, the gas chambers," France's European Affairs Minister Pierre Lellouche snapped back.
France is "irreproachable," President Nicolas Sarkozy was quoted as telling party allies, adding that "if the Luxembourgers wanted to take them, he had no problem" -- a jibe Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn denounced as "malicious."
Paris faces legal action from the European Commission over its controversial drive to deport ethnic Roma living in travelling communities in France back to Romania and Bulgaria.
"Let's all calm down and try to find a solution," said Finland's Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb at the summit. "What we've seen in the past few days of course is a little bit unusual for Europe."
Reding, in a bid to ease tensions, expressed "regret", insisting that she "in no way wanted to draw a parallel between World War II and the actions of the French government today."
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, for his part, argued that "the problem of the Roma concerned every country in Europe."
Italy had its own brush with the commission in 2008 when it started to register Roma living in camps, taking fingerprints and documenting their ethnicity and religion.
The heightened atmosphere at the summit could infect existing divisions on other fronts too.
EU chief Herman Van Rompuy stands charged by Berlin with producing only "nebulous" ideas for punishing countries whose spending blitzes threaten a shared euro economy.
"Germany backs severe sanctions," Chancellor Angela Merkel said.
Momentum has faded since May, when EU bosses trumpeted a trillion-dollar euro rescue war-chest, as seen by Slovakia wriggling out of a commitment to lend Greece money.
"Intensive work" is required if decisions slated for October are to live up to Van Rompuy's launch fanfare, one diplomat told AFP.
International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who must throw in one euro for every two the EU chucks at its basket-case economies, also wants "courageous measures."
Otherwise, Europe will "no longer be able to compete with the world's most dynamic countries."
On the diplomatic front, summit strategists ought to secure a call for Israel to extend a freeze on settlement activity.
But EU capitals are hesitating to endorse British Prime Minister David Cameron's bid to aid Pakistan, despite supportive rhetoric about rising Islamist extremism.
Fearing challenges at the World Trade Organization, Cameron's attempt to nail down a "concrete political commitment" to open the world's biggest border-free market to Islamabad may result in no more than a fudged agreement "in principle" to cut duties on key imports.
© 2010 AFP