Ministers from Europe's five largest countries are set to meet in Paris next month to discuss immigration, in the wake of France's controversial decision to repatriate illegal Roma travellers, it was revealed Tuesday, DPA reported
French Immigration Minister Eric Besson is said to have invited the Italian, German, British and Spanish interior ministers to Paris on September 6 on the occasion of a visit by the Canadian immigration and citizenship minister, Jason Kenney.
In an interview published Saturday by Il Corriere della Sera, Italy's Interior Minister Roberto Maroni said he would use the meeting to push for stricter EU rules on immigration, in the wake of France's decision to expel ethnic Roma living illegally on its territory.
But despite such a move requiring a change in EU legislation, the bloc's executive was not invited to the talks.
Meanwhile, France's secretary of state for Europe, Pierre Lellouche, stoked the fires of the controversy on Tuesday, telling Le Figaro newspaper that the freedom to travel between EU countries should not be an excuse for mass migration.
Lellouche rejected criticism that France had "deported" any Roma, saying: "We have only applied European law. It is a voluntary return, including financial support."
He called on the EU's financial assistance to Romania - around 20 billion euros (25 billion dollars) between 2007 and 2013 - to be spent on helping better integration of the Roma.
However in the Bulgarian capital, Sofia, the head of the nationalist VMRO party, Krasimir Karakachanov, praised the French action, saying: "France has shown it is taking the problem of gypsies seriously."
Karakachanov told the Focus News Agency the Roma was a "problem throughout Europe", and that attempts at including the community would fail and merely "sink a lot of money."
The absence of an invitation to the meeting for the EU commission was confirmed by spokesman Olivier Bailly.
Belgium, representing the EU's rotating presidency, did receive an invite, but a diplomatic source said it may decline to attend if Italian or French officials insisted on focusing talks on the controversial Roma issue.
According to current rules on free movement, EU citizens can only be deported from another EU rules if they have no money to sustain themselves, have no health insurance or are a threat to public order.
But each case must be assessed individually, preventing states from carrying out mass expulsions.
Last week France's centre-right government embarked on a plan to dismantle irregular gypsy camps and repatriate hundreds of Romas living there to Romania and Bulgaria, in return for a 300-euro (385-dollar) individual payout.
Maroni backed the French move, saying it "copied" measures undertaken by Italy's right-wing government in 2008.
But the French policy has been criticized in Romania and Bulgaria and denounced as racist by left-wing opposition, non-governmental organizations and the Catholic Church, with even Pope Benedict XVI weighing in on the debate.
On Tuesday the anti-racism committee of the Council of Europe, a human rights watchdog based in Strasbourg, France, said it was "deeply concerned about the treatment of Roma migrants" in the country.
Critics also suggested the French crackdown on irregular immigration was part of an attempt by President Nicolas Sarkozy to boost his poll standing, currently sitting at record lows.
The European Commission has been more subdued, saying last week it was "monitoring very closely" the respect of EU laws on free movement of EU citizens, but adding that "it is really for France to see how it applies these rules.