Immigration Issues Test Unity Of The European Union

The Italian city of Ventimiglia borders France. Differences in immigration policies are emerging among European Union countries, including France, Germany and Italy.

hide captionThe Italian city of Ventimiglia borders France. Differences in immigration policies are emerging among European Union countries, including France, Germany and Italy.

Sylvia Poggioli/NPR

In recent months, the European Union has been shaken by internal divisions over management of the single currency, the euro, and over NATO intervention in Libya. Now, even sharper differences have emerged over immigration.

A showdown is under way at the France-Italy border on the Riviera, where thousands of recently arrived Tunisian migrants are testing the notion of a united Europe.

In recent weeks, France has sent some 2,000 Tunisians back to Italy. Paris rejects Italy's decision to issue six-month permits to the 25,000 Tunisians who have landed on its shores since January.

When a train from Italy pulls into Menton-Garavan station, members of France's anti-riot police force are waiting to board it. They single out a small group of dark-skinned young men, ask to see their identification, then take them in for questioning.

On Sunday, fearing protests by anti-globalists, France temporarily blocked all trains from Italy.

Challenges Crossing Borders

The mood in Menton, like the rest of France, is not welcoming for new arrivals. The beachfront promenade extends for miles — ideal for jogging and leisurely walks. An elderly stroller has made the Riviera her retirement home.

"There are so many Tunisians here, there so many other people here, it is becoming more and more aggressive," she says. "Myself — I don't go out at night, I am afraid. I don't think it is correct what the Italian government is doing. They should absorb them themselves."

Like many other people here, the woman won't give her name for fear of reprisals, but she says she is Greek-born, with a British passport, living in France and calls herself European.

But across the border in Ventimiglia, Tunisian migrants are beginning to question the notion of a borderless Europe. Lizar Taher, a Tunisian student, asks, "If Italy is a member of the EU, why does France say no, why does Germany say no?"

The train station at Ventimiglia, in northern Italy. Tunisian migrants sleep on cardboard sheets at the station, waiting to be issued temporary travel permits. i i

hide captionThe train station at Ventimiglia, in northern Italy. Tunisian migrants sleep on cardboard sheets at the station, waiting to be issued temporary travel permits.

Sylvia Poggioli/NPR
The train station at Ventimiglia, in northern Italy. Tunisian migrants sleep on cardboard sheets at the station, waiting to be issued temporary travel permits.

The train station at Ventimiglia, in northern Italy. Tunisian migrants sleep on cardboard sheets at the station, waiting to be issued temporary travel permits.

Sylvia Poggioli/NPR

After a hazardous sea journey from Tunisia to the island of Lampedusa, hundreds of migrants have gathered at the border. They sleep in the train station on cardboard sheets, waiting for new temporary travel permits, issued, Rome says, for humanitarian reasons.

But France insists all migrants must have a valid passport and hold sufficient sums of cash.

Jamel Hakimi says that's an impossible demand.

"If you have a place to sleep," he says, "you need 30 euros a day — that's 2,700 euros for three months. And for those with no place to sleep," Hakimi adds, "it's 5,600 for three months. They're blocking us all."

Isolationism On The Rise In Europe?

It's not just France that doesn't want them — Austria and Belgium are also threatening to close their borders and deploy anti-riot police. And a German official went so far as to accuse Italy of blackmailing its EU allies — a method, he said, typical of the mafia.

Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini accused the EU of shirking its collective responsibilities.

"Not France, not Italy, not Germany, [but] Europe," Frattini said, "and Europe is doing nothing about that, so Europe is divided. European integration failed on immigration."

Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi went further, wondering whether there is any sense in remaining within the European Union — an unprecedented remark in the EU's 50-year history which some analysts say helps foment fears and bolster the government's credentials on the extreme right.

Callers to the Northern League radio station are venting their anger.

"I'm proud to be a racist," one caller says. "We've gotten nothing from Europe; Italy should leave the EU."

The same isolationist neo-nationalism is growing throughout much of Europe. Extreme right-wing parties are gaining ground — even in old Scandinavian socialist strongholds. But the clash over immigration could prove to be the most divisive among the 27 EU member states.

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