The European Commission has given France until October 15 to come into line with EU law in allowing free movement of persons, including giving effective rights to the Roma whom France has been deporting without due process of law to determine individual guilt. Regrettably, the Commission pulled back from launching a ground-breaking legal case based on France's violation of the fundamental rights of an ethnic group by targeting them for discriminatory treatment. But it served notice that France will now have to provide evidence, not just assurances by ministers, that it is not targeting the Roma.
The boxing match of "France v. Commission" has been entertaining for the press corps. But it has not helped the plight of a single Roma person yet. Good could come out of this shameful episode if it leads to a comprehensive, pan-European strategy to integrate the Roma.
This is exactly the kind of cross-border, pan-European question the EU was created to resolve. The Roma are one of Europe's oldest and largest minorities, and the 12 million of them suffer discrimination and poverty across the continent, and outright persecution in many EU states. No wonder they are willing to move from poorer countries to richer ones, even if few are culturally nomadic. Their plight is the ultimate challenge for the "social inclusion" policies that the EU developed to accompany market liberalization, and the European values enshrined in the Lisbon Treaty.
The Iron Curtain no longer holds the poor and persecuted behind closed borders, while the EU is actively promoting free movement for citizens as a major benefit of European integration. European governments cannot stop people moving without undermining the Single Market, which is founded on freedom of movement for goods, services, capital and people.
EU member-states risk getting into a race to the bottom if they rely on coercion to make life more uncomfortable for the Roma in their country than in others. Security-based measures are legally dubious, usually discriminatory and unlikely to be effective. Periodic deportations and destruction of camps will not persuade people to stay in their countries of origin, while cash payments for "voluntary repatriation" encourage people to come back to claim more.
The EU's credibility as a values-based organization is at stake. The world's media, from Al-Jazeera to CNN Türk and Russian TV, are running stories about racist persecutions in Europe. It is much harder to preach human rights abroad when they are not respected at home.
Viviane Reding, the European Commissioner for Justice, announced to the European Parliament that she will develop five measures for a more comprehensive policy. This is a welcome departure from the Commission's previous caution about developing a policy specifically for the Roma, arguing that other disadvantaged groups would ask for the same. But governments are taking actions that threaten core principles of the European project, and many members have manifestly failed to integrate the Roma into their societies for centuries. This is not just a question of discrimination, but of social inclusion, for which the Commission has many tools and lots of money.
The EU's regional and social funds can be spent on housing for Roma, as well as education, training and employment. But only a fraction of this money is actually reaching the Roma in the poorest member-states, because their governments lack the political will and administrative capacity to use it.
The Commission's role needs to be that of a coordinator, ensuring that countries share policy expertise and best practice, while keeping them up to the mark by monitoring and evaluating their progress through social inclusion indicators. An EU-level policy should not let national governments off the hook, because most of the measures that would bring the Roma into mainstream society are national responsibilities rather than EU competences - particularly education, health, housing and employment.
It could take decades to improve the situation, as many Roma communities have suffered centuries of discrimination and generations of unemployment, so their expectations and those of the majority society will take time to adjust. But the start is already long overdue. The "Sarkozy v. Reding" show has been entertaining. Now the EU has to show that it is a community of values as well as a common market.
The outrage from many quarters at France's measures showed that Europeans are not so apathetic about their values as their politicians sometimes assume. The Charter of Fundamental Rights just came into force. For it to have meaning, the Commission has to set out a positive agenda for Roma inclusion in addition to slapping member-states for the most egregious violations of EU law.