Rome view: immigrants from North Africa

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Italy’s interior minister, Roberto Maroni, is quite right when he says that the country cannot be left alone to deal with the mass arrival of immigrants on its coasts. Recently Italy – and Italians – have tended to more or less give up on the EU. On the immigration issue they’re now calling for help and assistance. Eyes are opening and suddenly Italy realises that it is high time to re-engage with the European Union.

Over the last week alone Italy registered 4000 arrivals on the island of Lampedusa. On Friday it appealed for urgent assistance from the EU to deal with the ‘looming emergency’. In the light of the recent upheavals in Tunisia, Egypt and Algeria, it is a matter of urgency that the EU not only engages actively with the region, offering its support and solidarity, but also that it develops and implements an effective plan to manage any mass influx of immigrants from these particular North African countries. This plan needs to be developed and put into place fast.

In a statement, Italy’s foreign ministry requested the immediate deployment of a Frontex (the EU’s border security agency) mission. It also called for "an urgent political level meeting of the EU's justice and home affairs council to deal with the immigration emergency."

Italy’s foreign minister, Franco Frattini, has arranged a last minute stop in Tunis today (Monday) to discuss the issue, but the Foreign Ministry states that "We are asking for an immediate response from the European Union to a situation that Italy cannot deal with on its own.” Yesterday one of Italy’s news agencies reported that the minister for law simplification, Roberto Calderoli (from the Northern League),stated that "The European Union must show themselves to be a political reality, not just a single currency. The phenomena of the new arrivals could become an epidemic given the explosive situation in the Mediterranean. We are a border state, but the emergency regards all of Europe." 

Italy is one of the EU’s founding members. Its economy is more than twice the size of Poland’s, and its population is around the same as that of France or Great Britain. Despite all of this, Italy has not been playing a decisive role within the Union. Today it doesn’t even have a Minister of State for Europe – in fact it hasn’t had one since Andrea Ronchi’s resignation on November 15th.

But despite this lack of clout (or possibly even lack of interest) in European Affairs, today Italy needs the EU to intervene, and quickly. Acting now is of great importance for the EU – the flow of immigrants will only be diverted somewhere else if the approach is not coordinated at EU level. But much more is at stake here.

The EU has already been slow to react regarding the events in its southern neighbourhood. Failing to enact a humane plan for managing the fleeing immigrants that land on its shores – trying to flee the upheaval caused by demonstrations in favour of the democratic ideals espoused by the EU – will further undermine the EU’s influence and standing.

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