A wave of governmental hostility towards ethnic and religious minorities risks undermining the common values of "human dignity, freedom, equality and solidarity," in the words of the Charter of Fundamental Rights, upon which the European Union is founded.
In Italy, from the prime minister down, politicians have disparaged the Roma, many of whom are Italian citizens, as well as other immigrants in a manner that has appeared to legitimize acts of discrimination and violence. According to press reports, Silvio Berlusconi has called illegal immigrants "an army of evil" and has expressly rejected the idea of a "multi-ethnic Italy", saying, "That's not our idea."
In May 2008 the interior minister, Roberto Maroni, reportedly declared: "All Romani camps will have to be dismantled right away, and the inhabitants will be either expelled or incarcerated." Two days later, when a mob of 60 razed a Romani camp in Naples with Molotov cocktails, Maroni quipped: "That is what happens when Gypsies steal babies, or when Romanians commit sexual violence."
The same month, Berlusconi promulgated a "declaration of state of emergency," defining the presence of "irregular third-country citizens and nomads" as justification for a series of extraordinary measures including fingerprinting and photographs of all affected persons, including children.
A lawsuit in the Italian courts argues that the security measures cannot withstand scrutiny under article 14 of the European convention on human rights. There is no "objective and reasonable" justification for such blatant targeting of national and ethnic minorities. Underlying the measures is pure, unadulterated racism. Given the languid pace of Italy's judiciary, it may be months, if not years, before a court pronounces.
Italy is not alone. Over the last two weeks, French authorities have dismantled more than 40 Roma camps and promised to return hundreds of Roma to Bulgaria and Romania, EU members whose citizens are ostensibly entitled to freedom of movement and residence throughout the union.
Last month, Nicolas Sarkozy proposed stripping foreign-born French citizens of their citizenship if they are convicted of threatening the life of a police officer or other serious crimes. By adding polygamy and female circumcision to the list of offenses, Brice Hortefeux, the interior minister, made clear that this measure was aimed at Muslims. Although international law accords states broad discretion in granting access to citizenship, the legal power to withdraw citizenship once conferred is more limited. In particular, states may not deprive persons of citizenship arbitrarily, for discriminatory reasons.
Earlier this summer, by a vote of 335 to 1, France's lower house of parliament approved a ban on wearing face-covering veils in public. The measure will be considered next month by the senate. There have been attempts – as yet incomplete – to enact similar bans in Belgium and Spain.
French authorities have taken pains to use language that does not overtly single out Muslims – thus the bill is officially cast "to forbid concealing one's face in public". And yet, what is colloquially referred to as the "anti-burqa law" marks the culmination of a campaign of intolerance sparked by Sarkozy's June 2009 declaration that the burqa is "not welcome" in France. The law tellingly exempts a variety of non-Islamic coverings, including motorcycle helmets, and masks used for health reasons, fencing, skiing or carnivals.
Fewer than 2,000 women in France are believed to wear face-covering veils, yet proponents of the law say that it is needed to further security, secularism and women's rights. France's highest administrative body, the Council of State, has warned, however, that it could be unconstitutional. Any legal challenge to the burqa ban that lands in Strasbourg will have to contend with case law that has allowed France and Turkey, among other states, broad latitude to ban religious headgear in schools and universities.
Perhaps the most stunning demonstration of Europe's growing anxiety about diversity came in Switzerland, which has long prided itself as a haven for refugees. In a referendum last November, Swiss voters imposed a constitutional ban on the construction of minarets, the prayer towers of mosques. Switzerland has only four minarets and Muslims make up roughly 5% of the population, yet referendum sponsors warned that the interests of Swiss residents "who are disturbed by specific kinds of religious land uses" were not being "taken seriously".
In seeming contradiction, they then argued that "the construction of a minaret has no religious meaning". Rather, "the minaret is far more a symbol of religious-political power." The Swiss ban is already the object of a legal complaint in Strasbourg. Should it survive admissibility hurdles, it will likely be found in breach of the religious freedom or non-discrimination planks of the European convention.
These legally dubious measures may eventually be corrected by judicial rulings, but much damage is being done. If the aspiration for "an ever closer union" bound by European citizenship is to retain vitality, its defenders must speak now.