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Italy pushes law driven by Roma influx

September 10, 2010

By Gabriella Bianchi and Guy Dinmore in Rome, published: September 10 2010

Italy’s centre-right government is pressing ahead with controversial legislation driven by an influx from Romania of gypsies, also known as Roma, that will formalise the process of expelling unwanted European Union citizens.

Italy’s planned decree, co-ordinated with similar proposals in France, strikes at the heart of a landmark EU directive that sets out the conditional rights of citizens to freedom of movement and residence but is short on provisions on how governments can deal with those who breach conditions of their stay.

Roberto Maroni, Italy’s hardline interior minister, is expected to present his proposals to the European Commission next week, having secured France’s support at a Paris conference on immigration.

Critics say Italy’s initiative is riding on France’s campaign of mostly voluntary repatriations of Roma. Resounding criticism by the European parliament and muted reaction from the Commission have had little effect. As in France, Italy’s plan is seen as driven in part by domestic politics with Silvio Berlusconi’s coalition possibly facing early elections.

Mr Maroni, of the rightwing Northern League, is targeting the EU’s 2004 directive 38 which allows EU citizens to reside abroad for more than three months under various conditions, including the need to demonstrate sufficient income. He wants an EU-wide database of criminal records.

“Those who do not respect the rule are effectively unpunished because the states have no tools to enforce repatriation,” Mr Maroni said this week.

“A gap in the legislation needs to be filled,” he said, without revealing precise details of his proposals.

Successive Italian governments have struggled to deal with an influx of thousands of gypsies since the expansion of the EU and its open borders policy. Some of those given incentives to leave France are reported to have moved to Italy.

In the absence of a national policy, city authorities have had to cope with foreign gypsies who mostly live in a mix of authorised and illegal camps, often in squalid conditions.

Milan, base of the anti-immigration Northern League and governed by Mr Berlusconi’s People of Liberty party, has taken a forceful line, closing almost 100 illegal settlements this year at a cost of €2m ($2.5m) but offering no alternative.

Gianni Alemanno, Rome’s first postwar rightwing mayor, has tried to build consensus for his “nomad plan” to screen and relocate some 6,000 gypsies in a dozen camps. Many are long-term residents from the Balkans in the process of getting residency on humanitarian grounds.

Many others are expected to face repatriation.

Mr Alemanno said the government would pass its decree on deportations regardless of the view in Brussels.

Humanitarian organisations believe pressure from the EU and civil society will persuade Italy to back down, as happened two years ago when it gave up finger-printing gypsy children, said Sant’ Egidio, a Catholic lay group.

Nazzareno Guarnieri, president of the Romani Federation, says the government wants to boost its popularity ahead of elections. “The same thing happened before the last elections of 2008 when a Roma emergency state was declared. Such decrees demonstrate that we are going to be used, once more, as fodder by politicians,” he said.

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