GLOBAL JOURNALIST: Squabbles, crises ensnare European Union

Friday, September 24, 2010 | 12:29 p.m. CDT

Byron Scott, professor emeritus, Missouri School of Journalism: It's been a season of discontent in the so-called United States of Europe. Political squabbles among the 27 nations of the European Union are customarily absent over the vacation months. But in recent weeks, the EU has been embroiled in controversies. Some topics may be familiar here in the United States — immigration, financial bailout — and others, like the absence of government in the Netherlands and Belgium, seem downright bizarre.

Perhaps the most volatile is France's deportation of Roma — or as we would unkindly call them, gypsies — from an EU nation back to another EU nation, specifically Bulgaria or Romania. Here to discuss these controversies are four journalists: Andrew Rettman, reporter at the EUobserver, Brussels; Michael Bird, editor of The Diplomat Bucharest, Romania; Samantha King, freelance reporter, euronews, Séez, France; and Gareth Harding, longtime Brussels journalist and director of the Missouri School of Journalism Brussels Program. Gareth, give us a picture of the general mood in Brussels these days.


Related Media

Related Links

Related Articles

Gareth Harding, director of the Missouri School of Journalism Brussels Program: Well, the mood is not good. You mentioned the United States of Europe. I think we are quite a long way from that, and the last few months have proven that we're still 27 individual member states. The mood is scratchy, bad tempered and negative. There has been an undermining of some of the most fundamental concepts of the European Union, such as solidarity with other member states, as we saw with the Euro crisis in Greece, and undermining of the concept of tolerance, as we saw with the French treatment of the Roma. This proves yet again that we have created all these grand EU institutions and policies, but we haven't really created a European spirit of togetherness. And added to this danger seems to be the breakdown of political parties at the national level. So compared to several years ago, the picture is pretty gloomy in many respects.

Scott: Your description reminds me of the general state of the U.S. Congress these days. Let's start with the Roma issue. Michael Bird, please give us the view from Bucharest, where I understand the Romanian Parliament has recently spoken out on this issue.

Michael Bird, editor, The Diplomat Bucharest, Romania: Yes, Sarkozy targeted around 1,000 Roma to deport from France to Bucharest. Part of the problem was that he targeted a particular ethnic group. If he had done this with the Irish or the Slovenians, I think there would have been an even greater outcry.

In Bucharest, there are mixed feelings about this. On one hand, people do not like the fact that France has taken a very high-handed attitude toward treating both the Romanians and the Roma community, but, on the other hand, Bucharest recognizes that France is probably its most important strategic partner in the region, so it does not want to annoy Sarkozy too much. Bucharest also wants to be in the Schengen area of free space in spring 2011, and although it probably will be able to do that, certain people in France are giving the impression that if Romania does not accept back the Roma, this could be put further back.

Scott: For our audiences who don't realize it, any citizen in any European Union nation has the ability under the Schengen accords to migrate to another European Union nation. Is that correct, Michael?

Bird: Yes, you can move between nations without any border controls. But at the moment, the Roma, who are citizens of Romania or Bulgaria, can freely go anywhere in the EU, regardless of whether or not it is in the Schengen area. This is why the French policy of deporting the Roma is completely ridiculous, because all the Roma who come back to Bucharest can just get in a bus and be back in France within 24 hours.

Scott: Andrew, tell us what has happened in the European Union circles in Brussels in response to France's policy.

Andrew Rettman, reporter at the EUobserver, Brussels: First we had a long, embarrassing period of silence from the European Commission over the summer. Then (European Commission President José Manuel Barroso) gave a much-hyped state of the union speech in European Parliament in which he made a cryptic allusion that xenophobia and racism has no place in the European Union and even talked about getting rid of ghosts of World War II and the mass deportation of the Roma people.

And then everything exploded about one week ago when Viviane Reding, EU commissioner for fundamental rights, of Luxembourg origin, attacked France, saying she was appalled and that the commission would have to take France to court and that she thought this kind of thing would never happen again in Europe after World War II.

Then we saw the French reaction that you cannot speak to France like this, and Nicolas Sarkozy at the summit last Friday followed up. He reportedly threatened to boycott the summit unless Ms. Reding apologized. Then at the summit, there was report of a blazing row between Sarkozy and Barroso in which Sarkozy was heard shouting all the way down the corridors demanding apologies. Meanwhile, the deportations continue and the commissioner is preparing some kind of legal action.

Scott: Samantha, give us the perspective from France.

Samantha King, freelance reporter, euronews, Séez, France: In France, this has dominated the press most of the summer. One radio station said that it started out as a French internal affair and has ended up a diplomatic crisis of international proportions, which is pretty much what has happened. Just to clarify the movement of Europeans within Europe, the situation is slightly different for Romania and Bulgaria. When they joined Europe in 2007, the proviso was that people from those countries going to work in other European countries could only do so for three months and after that they needed to have a work permit to stay. This was to prevent too great an influx of workers into other countries. So the French stance is that the people we are sending back don't have work permits and therefore are here illegally so we're doing nothing wrong. This is a policy used by a lot of other European countries.

The problem that France has run into is that there was a secret memo on Sept. 5 that showed that this government was specifically targeting the Roma community, which it is not allowed in EU rules. The World War II reference has even come from supporters within Sarkozy's own party, so he is under fire at home and abroad.

Really, we have seen this from the start of the summer as a typical Sarkozy type of thing. He was not doing very well in the polls. There are a few other scandals going on in France. As he has done previous times, he used security to bolster his polls. There was an incident involving somebody of French Roma origin that got out of hand, so he declared he was going to clamp down on illegal camps and send people back. In the short term, he saw his poll ratings go up, but now you have everybody from the Vatican to the UN to the European Union criticizing France. And certainly the coverage has changed from being quite happy to go along with getting rid of nuisance people because authorities in France do see the Roma as a nuisance since they see them begging on the streets and in the underground and the Paris metro. The public support for expulsions is still there, but it is waning, as well as the public support for Sarkozy.

Scott: Andrew, the EUobserver has an article saying that Romanian Parliament has defended the Roma's rights to move freely in Europe. So what is this all based in aside from Sarkozy's popularity? Is there an economic base?

Rettman: No, as Samantha said, Sarkozy is fighting a domestic political campaign that spiraled onto the international stage. If you want to see it in a broader context, there is a spring toward the right in European politics. We saw this in the elections to the European Parliament where the center-right gained ground over the center-left, and we see it in national elections now in Denmark, the Netherlands, Hungary, Bulgaria and Austria, where far-right parties are entering Parliament for the first time and getting more of a grip on mainstream politics. I don't see what expelling a small minority group in France will do for France's economic and social problems. I think it is just a populist gimmick by Sarkozy that blew up in his face.

Scott: Is that something you would say as well, Gareth?

Harding: I think intolerance and xenophobia seem to be entering the mainstream of European politics now. These fringe, populist, anti-immigrant, far-right parties that were tiny 10 years ago have now grown to 10 and 30 percent in at least a dozen EU states. The problems in the Netherlands and Belgium are complicating the formation of governments in those countries.

But more worrying is this undermining of some of the most fundamental principles that the European Union was born to uphold, such as tolerance and togetherness between European peoples and the free movement of Europeans. Some of these politicians are playing an extremely dangerous game, including mainstream politicians like Sarkozy, by not standing up to those principles but contradicting them.

Scott: Is the general feeling among the French that this may be a dangerous tactic?

King: For Sarkozy, it has backfired, because initially he said these camps are illegal and that they're hotbeds of prostitution, crime and child exploitation. Sarkozy is following a policy that both France and many other countries have been doing for years. Last year, France expelled 10,000 people back to Romania and Bulgaria. This summer he decided to showcase it to try to win back the far-right votes that carried him into the presidency that he is losing at the moment. But we learned that although the Roma were sent back to Bulgaria and Romania, they came straight back to France. All we're doing is giving money to these people and a free ticket back home to see their family, and then in 24 hours, they'll be back in France.

So on a grander scale, it was a big change in the fundamentals of what Europe was based on and a huge diminution of France's role in Europe. If you go back a few years, France was a really big player in Europe. It got to call an awful lot of shots, and now there are 27 countries in the European Union. Whereas before, countries that were joining were so eager to be in Europe, and France could basically lay down the rules they wanted to, now France is learning that it has to obey the rules and sometimes it is on the wrong side of them. It is not used to this position of being told off by Europe. There is a sense of outrage. How dare Brussels tell us what to do! Brussels has been telling various countries in the EU what to do for a long time.

Scott: Let me turn to the economic and political bases of that. One of the French responses I've heard is that Belgians can't even come up with a new government. It is a little-known fact here in the States that Belgium has had a caretaker government for four months now.

Rettman: You know, news coverage tends to overuse words like "paralysis" or "political chaos." Sitting here in Brussels, everything is as usual. Even in the midst of the economic crisis in Europe, it seems that Belgium has gotten used to pottering along without a government in place, and as far as the EU presidency is concerned, nobody is complaining about it doing a poor job. A couple of weeks ago, when the latest coalition talks collapsed between the various parties, there was a rash of comments from Francophone Socialists saying maybe we should talk about a breakup of Belgium, but nobody believes that that is in the cards.

Scott: So for the lack of a parliamentary majority there is a caretaker government in both Belgium and in the Netherlands. Is that true, Gareth?

Harding: Yes, it has been about seven months in the Netherlands and four or five months in Belgium, but we're getting used to this now in both those countries. This is probably the fourth or fifth time it has happened in the last 10 years in the Netherlands. And in Belgium, this is the third time Yves Leterme has resigned and then was asked to continue his duties as caretaker prime minister. In fact, I think he has been caretaker longer than he has been prime minister. Bureaucrats have a tendency of carrying on the functioning of the state. But it also shows that the federal state in Belgium has been hollowed out to such an extent that it doesn't make that much difference if you don't have a federal government because the regional governments are so powerful and have many of the powers the federal state usually has, and the European Union has so many powers a normal federal state would have. My Belgian friends complain about things like taxes but not about not having a government.

Scott: Difficult to get your head around if you're here in the United States, but it sounds like a policy that might work in terms of individual states. In the European economy and the Eurozone, there is discord with EU members refusing to bail out other nations such as Greece and Portugal. Samantha, what does this say about stability in the Eurozone?

King: It is underlining the differences between all the European member states. We are a very long way from the United States of Europe. When everything is going well, we can get along, but not when the hard times come. We saw this recently with Greece. Germany was so opposed to Greece's bailout because German economic policy and the attitudes are so different from the Greeks. In France, there is a massive mobilization. They had a national strike on Sept. 7, with two million people on the streets. But there is no common European policy on how to tackle the economic crisis. That makes it easier for far-right parties coming forward. It is so much easier to blame other people for your problems than yourself.

Scott: That is unfortunately a historically familiar argument. Michael Bird, let's get back to Bucharest and the diplomatic community and their concerns about the European economy. They must have a different view?

Bird: I wouldn't speak for the diplomatic community, but there are certainly concerns about the economy in Romania because it is being propped up by a loan from the International Monetary Fund, which also dictates to a certain extent the policies that Bucharest can put in play. But Greece is propped up by a much larger loan from the IMF of around 120 billion euro. At the moment, you have these countries being kept alive by financial institutions, so they're more conscious of keeping those institutions happy than the centralized view in Brussels.

Scott: But they're not keeping the French happy.

Bird: I don't know what would make the French happy.

Scott: What is the future of the euro in the current economic crisis?

Rettman: If I had the answer, I would be a rich man. But I would like to add a note of optimism to our discussion here. The economic crisis is almost an unprecedented event, at least in the European Union, but we've had the European government pull together. Yes, they squabbled, there were nasty headlines in the German tabloids about the lazy Greeks, but the money came forth. They put together a 750 billion (euro) facility for further bailout, and we are having serious discussion about joint economic governance and increased financial supervision in Europe.

I think the future is less about ideology and the mood with regard to solidarity and lack of solidarity. I think it is a financial problem, and if a country like Portugal or Ireland goes the way of Greece, then things will probably hold together. But if a country like Spain needs a bailout, there just won't be enough money in the pot and then the whole European project could really hit a wall if the euro starts to unravel.

Scott: Gareth, just 30 seconds of concluding words?

Harding: Yes, it was a bit gloomy at the start, but at the end of the day, the European Union is still a club people want to join. It is still one of the most prosperous free parts of the world, so I think we sometimes overexaggerate the problems Europe faces with its immigrants and its euro problems. But ultimately, it is still a beacon of hope and freedom and peace and security in the world.

Scott: And probably the metaphor that we started with, the United States of Europe, may ultimately confuse as we try to understand these issues. In just a few generations, the European Union has moved from a historical, perhaps utopian, experiment to a real political and economic force in the world. The euro has become a major currency. Yet the EU remains one of the most underreported continuing stories in American journalism, and we should probably correct that.

Producers of Global Journalist are Missouri School of Journalism graduate students Ryan Kresse, Youn-Joo Park, Tim Wall, Rebecca Wolfson and Kuba Wuls. The transcriber is Pat Kelley.

Like what you see here? Become a member.

Show Me the Errors (What's this?)

Report corrections or additions here. Leave comments below here.

You must be logged in to participate in the Show Me the Errors contest.


Leave a comment

Speak up and join the conversation! Make sure to follow the guidelines outlined below and register with our site. You must be logged in to comment. (Our full comment policy is here.)

  • Don't use obscene, profane or vulgar language.
  • Don't use language that makes personal attacks on fellow commenters or discriminates based on race, religion, gender or ethnicity.
  • Use your real first and last name when registering on the website. It will be published with every comment. (Read why we ask for that here.)
  • Don’t solicit or promote businesses.

We are not able to monitor every comment that comes through. If you see something objectionable, please click the "Report comment" link.

You must be logged in to comment.

Forget your password?

Don't have an account? Register here.