The Motto of the French Republic Liberty, Equa...Image via Wikipedia
Of the 20,000 illegal immigrants that have invaded Italy since January, most are Tunisians and most want to go to France: they speak French, they have family there and they are (mostly) young men who want to work. In Italy, for them there's no work (the recession is still on-going). And of course they don't feel at home, they don't speak Italian.

But France won't have it. Unbelievable! What has happened to the country of "freedom" and "equality"? Where has the French cultural heritage and revolutionary motto of "liberté, égalité, fraternité" gone to? Not to mention the deep-seated cultural linkage with Tunisia, a one-time colony of France that has had its values shaped by France's liberal heritage...

True, the French were slow to respond to Tunisia's "Jasmine Revolution". Does anyone still call it that? Since popular uprisings, starting from Tunisia and spreading to Egypt, have eventually overwhelmed the whole of the Middle East, the tendency now is to talk of the "Arab Spring".

Well, the calendar says it's springtime but the French will have none of it. They are determined to stay in winter and they've tightly shut their doors against what Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi likes to call the "immigrant tsunami". They've already sent back to Italy some 1700 illegal immigrants that had managed to cross into France since the beginning of the year, presumably from the Ventimiglia bordertown. At this point, I'm pretty sure that if the immigrants are smart,  they're flooding into France from other places because French border police patrols have turned the whole area between Nice and Ventimiglia into a well-guarded military zone.

And now other European countries are following France in this bunker mentality: Germany and Belgium! Expect more countries soon as everyone takes the stance that the illegal immigrant emergency is Italy's problem, and Italy's alone...Actually not quite. Today Germany declared that they are more willing than the Italians - "ten times more willing!" - to receive immigrants and they have taken in...100 Africans who had taken refuge in Malta. One hundred as compared to the 20,000 (more likely 22,000) now milling about in Italy? And they pretend they are "more willing"? I can't believe this: what is Europe and the European spirit of cooperation coming to? Actually, it is clear that there never was any, and Ms. Merkel who is one tough lady couldn't care less about Europe (as she's amply shown when Greece got into deficit). All she thinks of is Germany first - without realizing that by weakening Europe she is in the end weakening Germany too. But I'm getting carried away: that would be the subject matter of another post...

As of now, the fact is that Fortress Europe has been breached on its southern border. 20,000 immigrants in 3 months is clearly more than any single European country can handle, even a big one like Italy.  But it seems that the rest of Europe prefers to jettison Italy rather than try to help it solve the problem. Do you think I'm exaggerating? I'm not. The Italians have justifiably complained now for months that they are alone in bearing the brunt of the invasion. And so they are. Europe won't hear about it and in Brussels the European Commission has gone mum on the subject. The Commission has yet to develop a common policy to address the issue of immigration, and that's a policy that should have been developed BEFORE we ever got into the mess we are now in.

What can Italy do? Not much. So far, it's done everything it can to wiggle out of this uncomfortable situation. First it has had to solve its own internal problems (I've blogged about this before, see here). Nobody in Italy wanted refugee holding camps near their own hometown, and some still don't. Such as Alemanno, the Mayor of Rome who claims Rome has had its "fill of problems" and can't take anymore - not a very Christian position, and certainly not in line with the Catholic Church.

Second, Italy turned to Tunisia, the major source of the problem, to see what could be done.The first politicians to go there were the Foreign Affairs Minister Frattini and the Interior Minister Maroni. Remarkably, the latter belongs to the anti-immigrant Lega Nord or Northern League but he is a very practical individual - not someone given to wearing ideological goggles. While most of the work was likely done by Maroni, Prime Minister Berlusconi took a last trip early this week to try and gather the laurels for himself. Regardless of who managed it, some positive results were in fact achieved.

In exchange for Italian investment support to Tunisia (the exact terms of the agreement are not available as I write, but possibly some €150 million were offered) and an agreement not to expel the first 20,000 immigrants that have landed, Maroni obtained from Tunisia that all additional immigrants that might be coming in Italy would be returned home and that new migrant sailings would be stopped. In return, Maroni issued temporary travel permits (up to 3 months) that in principle allow the immigrants to travel within the visa-free Shengen Area that covers 25 countries in continental Europe - including France and Switzerland, thus opening a wide swath of frontier between the three countries. As of today and keeping to its side of the agreement, Tunisia has started again to patrol its borders and is said to have stopped a boat from sailing off to Italy.

Problem solved? Not at all. Paris is furious and sent yesterday its Interior Minister Claude Guéant to Rome. Germany and Belgium are equally furious and several officials have said so publicly. The day before coming to Italy, Guéant issued an order to his prefects that no one was allowed in France without a proper passport (something illegal immigrants don't have) and demonstrated income for self-support (at least €62/day - something immigrants dream of having !). On top of that, they can be expelled if they "disturb the public peace" - something very easy to provoke and a perfect basis for expulsion. To make matters even more complicated, there is a 1997 Italo-French treaty, the so-called "Chambéry agreement" signed a few weeks before Schengen and thus effectively putting a lid on Schengen. This agreement enables France to return to Italy any and all immigrants as it sees fit provided it can prove they came from Italy - thereby negating the very spirit of the Schengen treaty which was supposed to provide European citizens with the kind of freedom across state borders that Americans enjoy without even noticing it.

Indeed, the Italian Interior Minister Maroni was quick to point out that France's move is equivalent to a suspension of Schengen. To his accusation, the Belgians and Germans were equally quick to point out that it is Italy who has "broken" Schengen - because it wasn't able to "defend" its frontiers and "manage" the wave of illegal immigration (remember: 22,000 in 3 months - that's 7,000/month. Who can "manage" such numbers when these are people without papers or money?) I really believe that France has turned anti-European, and with it, so has Germany and Belgium.

Everybody would like to see the Italians resolve the immigration problem for them. And if they don't, that's because the Italians are hopeless, and Berlusconi is a buffoon, right? Wrong! I'm really angry because what's behind all this anti-European stance is nothing but self-interest and parochial politics. President Sarkozy is worrying about getting re-elected in 2012: he is playing to the extreme right, trying to win back votes from Marine Le Pen's party (she went to Lampedusa a few weeks ago and has created a storm over the immigrant issue). Ditto for Ms. Merkel who's just lost regional elections and is in a very precarious position. If they can get votes at the expense of Europe, what do they care?

Oh my Europe, where have you gone? 

Okay, today France and Italy have supposedly resolved their "diplomatic disagreement". Maroni and Guéant have agreed to jointly patrol the waters to stop migrants from Africa. But how France will deal with the temporary permits issued by Italy to immigrants is a bit befuddled in the news. Both countries said they would "deal" with this problem. But how?

I have a suspicion - and I only hope I'm wrong. Would you believe that what is facing illegal immigrants, rather than liberté, égalité and fraternité,  is  "la mort" - death? If you don't believe me, look at the French Revolution motto I put up at the top of my post. It very clearly says: "la mort"! All right, I'm kidding: it's not actual death. But it is the social equivalent: people won't be allowed to stay on, full stop. And that's what Sarkozy's France means - regardless of the stance he has taken on Lybia and the kudos gained for being the first to protect civilian lives in Benghazi with air strikes and the first to recognize the Lybian opposition's government. In other words, the doors are shut!

And of course, Germany is not far behind. Just watch their anger against Italy unfold and expand!

POST SCRIPTUM  Monday 11 April 2011 is the day Italy was proved wrong by its European partners in Luxemburg, at the meeting of internal affairs and justice ministers. The idea that North African migrants could be allowed to spread throughout the Schengen Area was killed. And Europe is back to turning itself into a fortress: everybody agreed that strong patrolling of the Mediterranean is what's needed to push off illegal immigrants.

The Schengen agreement actually means nothing since you have to have a passport to cross borders. Where is the European spirit? Schengen is like asking Americans to exhibit their passport when they go from New York to Connecticut!

Good-bye Europe!

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