Tempers are still frayed in the Berlaymont this week. Nerves are still raw and noses not yet quite back into joint following what was probably the most ill-tempered working lunch of Europe’s leaders for a long time.
Despite the earnest agenda that had been prepared, the heads of government from the EU’s 27 Member States had to restrain themselves from turning the European Council lunch into a bun fight.
Instead of using the opportunity to flesh out the EU’s foreign policy post-Lisbon or develop new measures on economic governance following the Euro-crisis, the lunch, according to the FT, instead turned “into a blustery spat” over France’s expulsion – or voluntary relocation scheme - of Roma.
Put simply, the European Commission believes this contravenes the sacred cows of free movement for EU nationals and non-discrimination of EU nationals. The Roma that were sent back to Romania are EU nationals and the Commissioner for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship – and Vice President of the Commission to boot, Madame Viviane Reding is on the warpath.
At first, the formidable Mme Reding was measured in her response to President Sarkozy’s initiative to offer money to Roma who had set up camps in France. It was when she claimed to have found out that the French Government were being “duplicitous” in what they had been telling the Commission, she went nuclear. The Commission Vice President said that the policy was worthy of Vichy France.
This did not go down too well in Paris. President Sarkozy bounded into Brussels last week for the Council Summit looking for a show-down with the Commission – something which always plays well at home.
Sarkozy slammed Viviane Reding for her "deeply shocking" and "insulting" comments. However, he couldn’t help himself from going further. He suggested that perhaps Luxembourg – Mme Reding’s Member State – would want to accommodate Roma travellers. This only undermined his position that France was well within its rights and that it was an infringement of national sovereignty to order the Government to change policy that had been designed to crack down on crime and disorder.
Although President Barroso tried to quell the dispute, he was forced to defend his Vice President when President Sarkozy harangued him in front of EU leaders. The result? Mme Reding apologised only for the Vichy remark. President Barroso stood his ground on the substantive allegations that were levelled at the French Government.
President Sarkozy was publicly isolated. He had failed to rally any political support from his European colleagues. It was a shame that serious issues around economic governance and EU foreign policy were sidelined.
However some fundamental principles were re-established. The Council President Herman Van Rompuy concluded that the European Commission has the responsibility of overseeing the application of EU law in the areas of freedom of movement and non-discrimination.
Another positive result for the Commission was an invitation from the Summit to the Commission to write the strategy for Roma travellers.
As for M. Sarkozy, he was sent back to the Palace Elysee with his tail between his legs, facing the prospect of Mme Reding taunting him with infringement procedures for contravening EU laws.