Lack of European borders seems to divide as much as it unites

The principle of free movement within the EU has become an increasingly contentious issue

"Europe cannot look the other way," European commission president José Manuel Barroso said yesterday following his visit to the Italian island of Lampedusa. The island has become a symbol of Europe's migration problem, as thousands of refugees take to the seas each year to seek refuge.

Yesterday's visit was the latest in a series of reactive measures taken by European authorities since last week's tragedy, as the European Union tried to show it was in control of immigration policy.

EU home affairs commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom, announced that EU border agency Frontext would operate search and rescue patrols across the Mediterranean, while the European Commission sanctioned an extra €30 million in funds in response.

It’s two years since Commissioner Malmstrom criticised member states for being “too event-driven” and focused on “quick-fix measures” as regards immigration, calling for a long-term strategy. The Lampedusa tragedy revealed just how elusive a common EU approach to immigration remains.

While the EU has power over the immigration policies of member states – the Dublin agreement, for example rules that a refugee must make an application for asylum in the country where she or he first arrives, while Schengen sets out clear rules on free movement within the bloc – a common EU policy on asylum is a long way off.

The 'Mobility partnership' signed this year between Morocco and the EU, for example, only applies to nine member states.

Much of this reflects reluctance on the part of member states to cede control to Brussels over immigration. Despite Italy’s impassioned call for the EU to share responsibility for the migration crisis, most member states see the politically-sensitive issue of immigration through a national prism.

Too much, rather than too little, interference is the charge usually levied against the European Union when it comes to matters of migration.

The principle of free movement which underpins the European Union idea has become an increasingly contentious issue.

Much of the debate is focused in Britain. British home secretary Theresa May will today unveil the government's much-awaited immigration bill which is expected to announce a series of measures to clamp down on so-called 'benefits tourism,' such as restricting migrants' access to Britain's National Health Service (NHS).

The desire to curb the inward flow of migrants is not just confined to Britain. Across the continent, immigration has become a hot political issue. French interior minister Manuel Valls sparked controversy just over two weeks ago when he alleged that only a minority of Roma people wanted to integrate in France.

Dutch deputy prime minister Lodewijk Asscher said last month that migration from eastern Europe was threatening the country's social welfare policies. The emergence of immigration onto the political agenda is linked to fears that next year will see an influx of Romanian and Bulgarian immigrants into Europe when restrictions on work permits that have been in place in some countries since both countries joined the European Union in 2007, will expire.

A report published by British think-tank Migration Watch in January suggested that 50,000 Romanian and Bulgarian people could arrive in Britain each year, fuelling feverish speculation in the right-wing British press of an imminent influx of immigrants.

British prime minister David Cameron has made no secret of his desire to clamp down on the alleged practice of benefit tourism, the phenomenon whereby migrants move to a country to use social services rather than to work. However, a forthcoming report from the EC is expected to show that migrants use welfare benefits no more intensively than the host country's nationals, and are in fact less likely to receive disability and unemployment benefits.

While the issue of immigration is emerging as a domestic political issue in member states, it also plays a central role in debates about the future of the European Union.

The British conservative party has already indicated that it will inform any renegotiation of British membership of the European Union.

It is also expected to impact significantly on next year’s European elections. Member states across the bloc have seen a rise in extremist, anti-immigration political parties.

The Italian boat tragedy may have prompted calls for greater European co-operation on migration, but tensions surrounding the principle of free movement within Europe’s own borders is a very real issue.

There is a deep irony in the fact that while Italy prepares to hold state funerals for the victims of the Lampedusa tragedy, on the other side of the continent the British government will announce measures to restrict the rights of migrants. That contradiction reveals a moral conundrum at the heart of EU immigration policy.