European ministers on Monday discussed ways to crack down on illegal immigration, block false asylum demands and harmonize EU immigration policy so that one country's solution doesn't become another country's problem.
The meeting was hosted by France, which is in the midst of a fierce controversy over the mass expulsion of Gypsies to their homelands in Romania and Bulgaria, two European Union countries. But the Gypsies, or Roma, were not on Monday's agenda, which dealt exclusively with immigration from outside the 27-member EU.
"It's urgent to coordinate," said French Immigration Minister Eric Besson, who hosted the daylong informal talks that brought together officials from Italy, Germany, Greece, Britain, Belgium, which currently holds the EU presidency, and Canada — all top magnets for migrants.
Attendees learned how one nation's decisions can affect others. Italy cut a deal with Libya, a jumpoff point for migrants heading to Europe, and reduced the flow of illegal immigrants arriving on its shores from tens of thousands to hundreds. But that didn't stop "asylum shoppers," who simply headed to Greece instead.
France has led an effort to fight illegal immigration.
Its crackdown on the Roma — mostly EU citizens who lack work or residency papers — has come amid a tightening of security by President Nicolas Sarkozy, who blames the Roma for raising France's crime rate.
France's tactics have drawn criticism both from the EU and the Roman Catholic Church.
Sarkozy's office confirmed Monday that the president is pushing ahead with another contested measure — stripping naturalized French citizens of their nationality if they are convicted of attacking a law enforcement official. The plan is to be included in a security bill that goes before parliament this month.
"We are not afraid of anyone or anything. The European Union is not a fortress," Besson said at a news conference. "It simply wants to promote legal immigration, which is the only type that allows for true integration."
Dozens protested Monday outside the French Embassy in the Romanian capital of Bucharest and in the western Romanian city of Timisoara over the expulsions of Roma from France. Some protesters carried banners saying "Stop Sarkozy" while others threw French wine, cosmetics and food in a bin.
Besson insisted that the hundreds of Roma forced to leave France in August went voluntarily with small stipends. Others have been expelled. Those forced to leave have been living in illegal encampments and overstayed a three-month limit for those without resources.
"The sacred principle of freedom of circulation of citizens doesn't have limits," said Italian Interior Minister Roberto Maroni. "The right of citizens to reside permanently in a country over the period of three months in one of the member states does have limits."
Maroni has said Sarkozy is "right" to force Gypsies who violate the law to leave. Italy had a much-criticized crackdown on Gypsies years ago.
The Paris talks were aimed at helping to lay the groundwork for a European Union ministerial conference on asylum Sept. 13-14.
Besson and others lamented what they said was the slowdown in processing asylum-seekers escaping war and other threats as officials tried to weed out claims for asylum by migrants who do not meet well-defined standards.
Maroni said he looks to the creation of a European system of dealing with illegal immigration and asylum "so that all countries have the same rules, the same standards," as proposed by France.
"We're dealing with people who require protection," he said.
Italy has cut back the arrivals of migrants from nearby Libya through a bilateral agreement with Tripoli. But Greek Deputy Citizens' Protection Minister Spiros Vougias said his country, already vulnerable to illegal migrants, was getting "asylum shoppers" turned away from Italy.
"As one country adopts a firm policy" migrants "find other points to come through," he said.
Vougias said this year Greece was seeing increasing numbers of especially vulnerable migrants, including pregnant women, the elderly and children.
"We need help and we need support of the whole European Union," he said.