"Many Roma are EU citizens but do not fulfill any of these requirements," said Maroni, whose party is the main ally in parliament of Silvio Berlusconi, the prime minister.

The minister said that the European Commission had denied Italy permission to pursue such a plan in the past but that he would resume lobbying and push for the change at the meeting of EU interior ministers on September 6.


France this week sent dozens of Roma on flights to Romania in a mass repatriation that it says is voluntary. Others said Roma were coerced to leave France and the measure was criticised by the French opposition, the Vatican and the Council of Europe.

Comparing the situation of Roma in Italy to those in France, Maroni said that "the problem is something else: unlike in France, many Roma and Sinti here have Italian citizenship. They have the right to remain here. Nothing can be done."

Maroni's comments were immediately denounced by the political opposition, including the Italy of Values party which said the plan smacked of racism.

"The government is making distorted, discriminatory and racist use of indisputable principles like the right to security and respect of law," Leoluca Orlando, the spokesman for the Italy of Values, said in a statement.

"Faced with a clearly discriminatory attitude towards Roma who are EU citizens, we're forced to talk about a false respect for legality and a degeneration of European rules."

The centre-right government of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has drawn similar accusations from opposition parties and human rights groups with its policies to root out illegal immigration and crime.

"Climate of intolerance"

Many Italians associate the Roma in particular with crime and begging. Last year the European Council's high commissioner for human rights said Roma and Sinti people in Italy were subject to "a persistent climate of intolerance".

In 2008, Berlusconi's government proposed fingerprinting Roma and their children, but partially backed down after coming under a barrage of criticism, saying the policy would apply first to those living in Italy who could not provide identification before being extended to all residents with identity cards.

Last year, forcing children to beg was made a jailable offence, a measure seen as targeting the Roma.

Berlusconi accuses the left of wanting an "invasion of foreigners". Since coming to power his government has made illegal entry and residency a criminal offence and repelled vessels carrying migrants heading towards Italy.

France expelled around 10,000 Roma to Romania and Bulgaria last year, but the flights this week are the first since Sarkozy announced a tough law and order crackdown that explicitly linked crime and immigration.