28 March 2012
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The Council of the European Union (27 national governments) is discussing a set of Council Conclusions to target "mobile (itinerant) criminal groups": EU doc no: 14277/10 (pdf). The term "itinerant" means, in plain English, "traveller(s)" which, in the context of the ongoing row over France's policies, is a thinly disguised reference to Roma people.
The proposed definition is:
" “A mobile (itinerant) criminal group is an association of offenders, who systematically acquire wealth through theft of property or fraud [*], having a wide ranging area of operations and are internationally active.”
(* defined as: E.g. theft, residential and non-residential burglaries, organised shoplifting, pick-pocketing, cargo thefts, metal thefts, thefts on construction sites and ATM fraud (skimming)).
The EU already has in place a multitude of measures to combat organised crime including criminal groups "internationally active" starting in 1998 and updated in the Council Framework Decision on the fight against organised crime of 2008. Europol also has a major role in targeting EU-wide organised crime. The proposed Council Conclusions are clearly intended to supplement current measures by the inclusion of the term "itinerant".
Council "Conclusions" are policy statements, which are non-binding (often referred to as "soft law") but which enable, and legitimise, common measures to be taken by one or more or all 27 Members States. As such the express targeting of Roma people in France and Italy could be extend across the EU. National and European parliaments have no say in the content of Council Conclusions.
The Conclusions open with the statement that the EU principle of free movement "may also be used by criminal offenders for unlawful purposes". Following on from an "Expert Meeting on "itinerant criminal groups" held on Brussels on 20-21 September 2010 says that:
"mobile (itinerant) criminal groups are mainly active in the following eight property crime phenomena: burglaries in houses, skimming, organized shoplifting, organized pick-pocketing, burglaries in businesses, cargo thefts, metal thefts and thefts on construction sites and of heavy equipment"
To counter this the Conclusions propose that Member States, Europol and Eurojust cooperate "in the fight against this criminal phenomenon"; that Europol produce a strategic analysis and intelligence; and that the High Level Meeting on Property Crime is convened and an European Operational Handbook on property crime be produced.
What the Council could have done
The Commission has threatened to take France to court over its actions against Roma: Commissioner Reding speech, 14 September: Statement on the latest developments on the Roma situation(pdf) and Commission statement, 29.9.10: European Commission assesses recent developments in France, discusses overall situation of the Roma and EU law on free movement of EU citizens (Press release, pdf) and the European Parliament has passed a strongly worded Resolution by 337 votes to 245 calling on France to 'immediately suspend all expulsions of Roma', saying that they 'amounted to discrimination': Full-text of Resolution (pdf)
But there is an alternative route. Article 2 (TEU) of the Lisbon Treaty says:
"The Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities. These values are common to the Member States in a society in which pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between women and men prevail."
Under Article 7 (TEU) one-third of Member States (9 states) or the European Parliament or the European Commission may determine there is a "clear risk of a serious breach by a Member State of the values referred to in Article 2". Then the European Council (the 27 Prime Ministers or Presidents) "acting by unanimity, with the agreement of the European Parliament, can declare that a serious and persistent breach has occurred. This can be followed by the withdrawal of rights, including voting rights, for the member state in question.
The principles in Article 2 are fundamental but the provisions in Article 7 mean that all 27 EU governments have to agree unanimously and with France and Italy (and others) opposed it this is unlikely to ever succeed.
The rise of racist parties
The France-Roma controversy is happening in the context of a long-term rise in far-right (extreme nationalist and racist) MPs and MEPs across the EU. Far-right parties are in government in Italy, in the coalition in the Netherlands and have seats in the parliament in Denmark, Sweden, Hungary, Austria and Bulgaria. There are also 50+ MEPs in the European Parliament of a similar ilk.
Tony Bunyan, Statewatch editor, comments:
"Instead of condemning the racism of the French government's policy of systematically expelling Roma people the Council is implicitly condoning them.
The fundamental values in Article 2 (TEU) are central to the future of democracy in the EU but if there is no willingness to enforce them then they are fatally undermined."
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