Fears of a new wave of immigration are stalking western Europe. The row between France and Italy is symptomatic of the tensions. Today’s meeting between President Sarkozy and Silvio Berlusconi was intended to calm the situation, and an agreement was reached to modify Schengen to allow for “exceptional circumstances”, but France is the clear demandeur that the Schengen agreement must be modified to allow stricter cross-border controls.
France argues that it already faces a major crisis. It took tough measures when the train between Ventimiglia and Menton, carrying Tunisian refugees who had been granted residence permits by the Italian authorities, was held up at the French border for seven hours. French officials refused entry for around 1,500 would-be entrants.
It seems that up to 30,000 people from Tunisia and Libya have already been registered by Italian immigration, most of them having fled via Lampedusa, and there is widespread concern that these numbers could swell in the backwash of revolutions across the Arab world, and especially the conflict in Libya.
All the emphasis is currently on France and Italy. Sarkozy must contend with the surging popularity of the Front National, while Berlusconi requires the support of the fiercely anti-immigrant Northern League to sustain his government. But of course the refugee issue has a political impact right across Europe.
Belgian immigration minister Wathelet has taken a tough line. The True Finns party in Finland, which has won 19 per cent of the seats in the recent elections, is calling on Finland to quit Schengen, while the prospect of Bulgaria and Rumania joining the Schengen agreement has become more problematic.
There are also major implications for the UK, although outside the Schengen agreement. British governments need no reminder of the squatter camps in northern France which refugees used as launching pads for illegal immigration to Britain. Indeed, it was Sarkozy, when he was a minister, who closed the camps – an act for which London is eternally grateful. If Italy is in the front line of the refugee pressure, France is not far behind. It is reported that already 1,000 refugees have gathered near the Gare du Nord for the Eurostar to London.
The European Commission is reluctant to accept that there is a refugee crisis and has turned down Italy’s request for special help – so triggering the decision to grant residence permits to the Tunisian travellers and send them on to France. Commission policy is to press the Tunisian government to speed up the homeward return of its nationals. Indeed, President Barroso has scolded Tunis for not doing enough to control the flow. A further €140m from EU funds is being allocated to Tunisia over three years to assist repatriation in addition to €257m already committed to help the country’s reconstruction.
The nub of Europe’s problem is that nobody knows how each of the Arab revolutions will turn out, nor what the implications will be for neighbouring countries. Civil war, for instance in Libya or Syria, could drive many thousands to leave their home countries, while economic stagnation in say, Egypt or Tunisia could cause other migrants to join those already travelling from sub-Saharan Africa in search of work.
The European Union must get its act together, supporting EU countries which face the biggest immediate challenges, and providing help for Arab neighbours (once it has identified their differing needs) to stabilise their societies and stimulate their economies, which is the only long-term remedy for the refugee issue.