Opinion piece originally published in the EUobserver on 4 August, 2010.
Perhaps we could be accused of an excess of cynicism, but us hacks in the Brussels press corps regularly roll our eyes at the European Commission’s opportunistic penchant for putting out nigh-on-identical statements of condolence whenever there is a tragedy of any major or even minor description or anniversary of some ancient (but historically uncontroversial) wickedness: Kristallnacht, an earthquake in China, the Love Parade stampede, the death of Michael Jackson.
But the cynicism was warranted on Monday, when the EU condolence-o-matic seemed to be malfunctioning for some reason. There was no solemn communique of sympathy, no moment of silence, not even a bland message carefully crafted by PR flunkies recommitting to “Never again” do this or that on the evening of 2-3 of August, the night of Roma Extermination Remembrance, the international date for commemoration of the Gypsy and Sinti victims of the Pharrajimos or Samudaripen, the two Romani words used to describe the Holocaust.
Because you see, Monday is just not the right day to do so. But maybe next year one of the EU presidents will, so long as the date does not also awkwardly coincide with a wave of expulsions and new laws targetting the Roma as it so inopportunely does this year.
In the past week, we have learnt that French President Sarkozy announced he is to destroy 300 Roma encampments and expel Roma from French territory, that Germany said it wants to expel 12,000 Gypsies, including 6,000 children and adolescents back to Kosovo, that Sweden in violation of domestic and EU law is deporting Roma for begging, that Copenhagen has asked the Danish government for assistance including the use of force to expel Roma, and that a caravan of 700 travellers were chased out of Flanders.
All this atop the Czech and Slovak practice of automatically sending Roma children to ‘special schools’ for the mentally handicapped, Italy’s 2008 declaration of a state of emergency due to the presence of Roma that saw the eviction of thousands of them, mainly to Romania and Bulgaria, and the murder last year of eight Roma in Hungary by individuals linked to the country’s far-right.
So right now really would not be a good time to be remembering the 66th anniversary of the liquidation by the Germans on the night of 2-3 August, 1944, of 2,897 men, women and children corralled into the Zigeunerfamilienlager , or ‘Gypsy family camp’, at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
One might be thought to be drawing inconvenient attention to the similarity of what happened so many decades ago and the government-orchestrated attacks that Europe’s largest and most oppressed minority face across the continent today.
As Anneliese Baldaccini, a lawyer with Amnesty’s EU office, told me: “There is a clear and systemic programme of EU governments targetting Roma. This is a moment of great concern right now.”
It is a shame that the date is so uncomfortably unseasonable, because the EU actually has very considerable powers to put a stop to it all, in a way that no actors had seven decades ago.
At the heart of the EU treaty lies the ultimate sanction Brussels can apply to any member state: diplomats call it the ‘nuclear option’. Under Article 7 of the EU Treaty, which states that in cases of a “serious and persistent breach” of human rights, penalties up to the withdrawal of voting rights in the European Council and even expulsion from the union can be imposed.
Amnesty believes now is time to act. “The EU under the Lisbon Treaty under Articles, 2, 6 and 7 has the responsibility to address human rights within the 27 member states,” said the group’s executive officer for legal affairs in the European Union, Susanna Mehtonen.
But the European Commission, which like the European Council and the European Parliament, have the power to invoke such sanction, wants to stay as far away as possible from the issue. On Thursday, the spokesman for commissioner Viviane Reding, the justice commissioner, Matthew Newman, said: “When it comes to Roma and the possibility of expelling them, this is up to the member states to deal with, in this case France, and for them to decide how they are going to implement the law.”
When the Charter of Fundamental Rights came into force with the passage of the Lisbon Treaty last year, the EU heralded the moment as a new dawn for human rights in Europe. The member of the commission responsible for the justice dossier was now also to become explicitly the “fundamental rights” commissioner, under pressure from the Liberals in the European Parliament.
Indeed, in April at a European Commission conference on the Roma issue, commissioner Reding called discrimination against the continent’s largest minority “unacceptable”.
But at the very moment when a deluge of government assaults is unleashed on the community in so many EU states, Brussels has gone silent.
The charter, the commission now clarifies, is not a bill of rights for citizens, but is instead just an instrument covering two very narrow areas: acts of the EU institutions themselves and EU member states when they implement EU law. The moves of France and other countries in this case thus lie outside their responsibility, they insist.
What is curious is that, applying this same strict reading, the commission also has no competence in defending the rights of gays and lesbians, except insofar as there is a breach of charter in these two situations, yet gay rights, long established in western European metropoles but not in much of eastern Europe, are monthly fairly robustly defended by the institutions.
In May, Reding’s office wrote to Vilnius to complain how a lower court had banned a gay pride rally. “The commission is concerned about the recent developments,” said the letter. Just days later, Lithuania’s top court ensured that the march could go ahead after all. European Council President Herman Van Rompuy also sent a “strong message condemning homophobia” to this year’s Baltic Pride.
The difference in the two situations is that there is an unspoken hierarchy within the bloc between the new eastern European states and the economic powerhouses in the west. Brussels can contentedly slap the wrists of eastern capitals without fear of consequence. The same cannot be said when the EU executive goes up against a Sarkozy or a Berlusconi.
It is not that the commission does not believe that such a flagrant breach of human rights is occurring. “This is the sort of thing that Sarkozy used to make his name. He’s really low in the polls now, so he’s using the same tactics. It worked before. And it’s really popular everywhere,” one commission official told me.
“It is possibly the most sensitive issue there is,” the official added, recalling when another spokesman last year lightly suggested that Italy might want to explain why it had deported a boatload of refugees to Libya. Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi at the time threatened to veto all actions of the European Council if the commission did not fire the spokesman for having the temerity of encouraging Rome to apply the law.
So this time around, “A decision was made to give a very institutional response.”
The commission privately argues that as for the “nuclear option” of invoking Article 7, “This is for rounding up all the gypsies and putting them in concentration camps. We’re not anywhere near there yet.”
But a Holocaust, or Pharrajimos or Samudaripen, does not arrive suddenly one day ex nihilo, returned from a long break in the Bahamas and knocking on Barroso’s door to announce himself: “Hello, Jose-Manuel? It’s Cousin Fascism! I’m baaack! What’s for tea? Oooh, lookie, lookie – austerity, mass unemployment! I do love this season in the economic cycle!” Fascism arrives slowly, quietly, by a steady but still recognisable tightening of the screws. Europe must act now before concentration camps do appear. In any case, they won’t be called concentration camps or look anything like them. Maltese and Greek detention centres for sub-Saharan irregular migrants were not built with cast-iron gates at their entrance emblazoned ‘Arbeit macht frei‘, though concentration camps are indeed what they are. Leaders will avoid such archetypically fascist language or forms of action so that they and Brussels can always claim that what is happening is “completely different”.
Under Article 7, precise penalties in advance of the level of withdrawal of voting rights or expulsion are not spelled out, so there is still considerable room for Brussels to manoeuvre. No one is expecting that France be kicked out of the EU. At the very least, could Reding not send a letter similar to that which she sent to Lithuania when the gay pride march was banned?
Or maybe next year, maybe gypsies could just organise a float during the Love Parade to get the EU to notice them.