Opening minds not closing borders


GIVEN THE actual and potential scale of the refugee numbers resulting from political upheavals in Tunisia, Libya and other Arab states, the latest row between France and Italy about accommodating 25,000 of them shows how little readiness there is in Europe to share this burden of conflict on its southern flank.

It should be remembered that Tunisia alone is hosting 630,000 refugees from the fighting in Libya, most of them migrant workers from other African states. And it is worth recalling that during the Balkan wars of the mid-1990s, some 350,000 refugees were accommodated in Germany alone.

Tension arose in the European Union over Italy’s decision to give six-month free travel tickets to some of the Tunisians held on the Mediterranean island of Lampedusa, which along with Malta is usually the first place they land. The Italians acted after their plea for help from other EU member states in dealing with the issue was turned down on April 10th. In response French authorities refused entry to a group of Tunisians coming by train from Italy. Nicolas Sarkozy and Silvio Berlusconi then called for the Schengen system of visa-free movement between 25 continental European states to be tightened up, invoking emergency conditions and internal security.

Schengen has become a cornerstone of the European integration process, even though it does not include Ireland and the UK but does have participation by Norway, Iceland and Switzerland which are not EU members. It is not immediately threatened but this tension reveals how neuralgic the issues of migration, asylum and refugees have become, not least because the rise of populist right-wing movements throughout the EU puts pressure on leaders like Sarkozy and Berlusconi. This week, in addition, workers in the 10 states which joined the EU in 2004 gain the right of free labour movement to 12 of the other members which denied it to them for seven years – Ireland, the UK and Sweden being the only ones to allow them in then.

Together these two issues pose a great challenge to preserve the existing achievements of free movement of people within the EU and to develop a more sympathetic approach to political changes in North Africa and the Middle East. Mass migrations can be headed off by a generous and imaginative political, economic and humanitarian response by the EU to its southern neighbours. Europeans need to realise that a fortress approach will do more harm than good. Demographic trends in the EU mean more migration will be required to replenish labour supply, and political leaders have a responsibility to explain this.

That includes the European Commission, which oversees Schengen and is to make proposals today about whether and how it should be amended. Its initial response to the Franco-Italian proposal raised the possibility of reinstating some border controls. That would be a slippery slope, opening up the dangerous prospect of a politically driven competition for tighter restrictions, which could undermine the whole project.