In an interview in Le Figaro, Silvio Berlusconi has now officially rallied to Nicolas Sarkozy’s defence on the Roma expulsions that are driving a wedge between the French government and the Union. Not only that, he has censured the justice commissioner for her remarks about Paris, adding that “Mrs Reding would have done better to discuss the matter in private with the French officials rather than expressing herself in public the way she did”.

This invitation to render European politics secret, which he now reformulates as a request to settle disputes between the Union and member states behind the closed doors of chancelleries, points up a specific conception of Europe, of its influence on its component states, and of the supranational law it administers. This conception essentially denies the primacy of that law – with its directives and its Charter of Fundamental Rights enshrined in the Lisbon Treaty – over the conduct and laws of nation states. It is ceaselessly wearing away at the European idea, delegitimising European law. And yet that law, which gives member state governments so much grief, remains in force.

Cabal of nationalists

European law and principles are being gutted in the name of national sovereignties, which are not disappearing, to be sure, but which must bow to the supremacy of the community in some domains. European power has not been formally rejected (it couldn’t be anyway), but subjected to a tenacious desire to see it camouflaged, concealed, just as Molière’s Tartuffe seeks to hide his own libidinous desires, imploring: “Cover that breast I cannot bear to see. Such a sight offends the soul and brings forth guilty thoughts.” The conspiratorial silence, the secret negotiations between Brussels and member states, the refusal to allow a space for public discussion of human dramas like that of the Roma, now a “people of the Community” if ever there was one. As in France in the age of Molière and Louis XIV, there is a “cabal” of die-hard nationalists in present-day Europe who admit the validity of European law but would keep it concealed, like Dorine’s beautiful bosom in Tartuffe.

The die-hards are hell bent on keeping up the fiction of absolutely sovereign states free to do as they see fit without interference from Brussels. These are the same die-hards who, when convenient, rail against Europe’s “democratic deficit” and its badgering tight-lipped bureaucracy. And this hypocritical number happens to be a French postwar speciality, now perpetuated by Mr Sarkozy.

But the Franco-Italian front reveals something else about the whole Roma affair. Neither the French nor the Italian leaders seem to recall the raison d’être – if they ever actually knew it – of this overly outspoken, finger-wagging Europe. They’ve apparently forgotten that the European Community was created after the war for the precise purpose of laying down a new supranational law under which states could no longer engage in wrongdoing behind the smokescreen of their little sovereign nations.

Danger of return to the past

It is not astonishing that on 14 September Viviane Reding, a Christian Democrat commissioner, should stress the danger of returning to the past, to the persecution of Jews and Gypsies in the last war. That was strong language, for which she subsequently apologised and which many deemed excessive, but which remains an inescapable reminder. A reminder of how the Union was formed post-1945, and why Europe is the promise everyone made to themselves that certain things would never happen again – thanks to the pooling of what used to be absolute national sovereignties.

On 16 September in Brussels, Europe fell out over the Roma issue: there were even reports of “violent altercations” between Barroso and Sarkozy. Even if Germany is not above reproach either (having expelled a great many Roma to Kosovo), Chancellor Merkel stands by the commission and its right to impose overarching laws and values. So does the Belgian government. The innocents are indeed few and far between, but the only government to openly back the French is Italy. And it’s the only one to share Sarkozy’s view of the commission. When he invited Reding to take in the Roma in her own country, Luxembourg, the French president treated the commission as an assembly of national representatives, and not of representatives of Europe’s common interest.

Pact of silence broken

It is possible that the conspiratorial silence may be over now. Barroso’s institutional pride in his commission is intermittent at best, and some member governments (Spain, Czech Republic) are very jealous of their sovereignty. But the pact of silence has been broken, essential matters are now being thrashed out in public: the Roma issue, like that of Austria in the days of Jörg Haider, has given rise to a European agora. Barroso’s commission would have stuck to politics being done in secret if the European Parliament hadn’t roundly condemned the expulsions on 9 September.

One of our great federalists, Mario Albertini, said the real Union would be born the day federalism “becomes a daily political struggle ( that) the man in the street realises that, just as there are socialists, Christian Democrats and liberals, there are also European federalists”. And that is what has been happening since the beginning of the summer, thanks to the Roma and the political struggle they have triggered over Europe’s raison d’être.

Translated by Eric Rosencrantz