'Is This Your Democracy?' Refugee Influx Exposes Limitations of European Solidarity

The influx of economic refugees from Tunisia has exposed deep rifts in the European Union. Italy wants help in dealing with the thousands of immigrants who have arrived since the beginning of the year, but the rest of the bloc refuses to provide it. It is just one more example of an EU struggling to stay united.


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He is still wearing the red-and-yellow jersey of the football club "Espérance sportive de Tunis," the only remaining vestige of his past life. He wore it on the fishing boat that brought across the stormy seas to Lampedusa, hoping it would bring him luck.

The journey into his new life took Amir, 22, a very tall, alert Tunisian, five weeks to complete. During that time, he hid in buses and trains and traveled 2,000 kilometers (1,250 miles) through Italy and half of France. Now he is sitting under a flowering clematis vine in a garden on the Loire River, near the Atlantic coast, breathlessly telling the story of his odyssey.

He made it to France because he was faster and more courageous than most of his fellow Tunisians, who had fled across the sea since the beginning of the year to find a new future in Europe.

Amir is one of the Tunisians who helped make the revolution in his country possible. He is educated and speaks polished French. He organized sit-down strikes in his university department, and he was among those who protested in the streets of Tunis and sent the country's then president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, into exile.

Frustration, more than anything else, was the fuel which drove the revolution. Most Tunisians are younger than 30 and there are far from enough jobs to go around; the future looked bleak. But the post-revolution economy is, if anything, in much worse shape than it was prior to Ben Ali's departure -- and Amir's university is still not open, months after the revolution. It was, Amir decided, time to leave.

Extremely Fragile

He scraped together €900 ($1,305) to pay for his trans-Mediterranean passage and, together with 35 other young men, boarded a fishing boat in the port city of Sfax. After 15 hours, they arrived on the Italian island of Lampedusa, the small, rocky European outpost in the middle of the sea.

They were not alone. Some 26,000 refugees have been stranded on the tiny Italian island since January, most of them Tunisians. But while they are looking for a better life, their arrival has set off a bitter dispute -- one proving that Europe, their paradise, is at times an extremely fragile community.

The dispute has to do with who should be obligated to accept the refugees on a temporary basis. The Italians, on whose territory they landed in the first place, as provided for in European treaties? Or is the number of refugees too large for Italy to handle? This is the position of the government in Rome, which wants to declare the refugee crisis a state of emergency, a position other EU members do not support.

When Italy announced that it would issue the refugees temporary residence permits with which they could travel to other EU countries, its neighbors threatened to reintroduce border controls. This would spell the temporary end of a borderless Europe.

Italian Interior Minister Robert Maroni upped the ante when he said last week: "I wonder if it even makes sense to stay in the EU." Given that Maroni is a member of the nationalist Northern League, his words weren't exactly surprising. But Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's argument was. He said that either Europe ought to be something real and concrete, but that if it wasn't, perhaps it would be better for each country to return to using its own methods for dealing with the refugees.

More Unpopular than Ever

The dispute over what to do with the Tunisian refugees on its southern flank is far from the only conflict battering the European Union. Indeed, the 27-member bloc has rarely been as divided as it is today, despite hopes that the Lisbon Treaty would bring EU countries closer together. Common interests are fading while the self-interest of individual countries is on the rise once again. The supposedly unified continent, which benefited from the great upheavals of 1989, has never been as unpopular with its citizens as it is today.

The disturbing development has been in evidence since the financial crisis. For the EU, the question of how to rescue the euro has expanded into an ongoing dispute over a European economic policy. That alone has created a deep divide within Europe, particularly between the affluent north and the less affluent south.

Then came the quarrel over the NATO intervention in Libya, when France pressed for military force against Moammar Gadhafi while Germany joined China and Russia in abstaining from the United Nations Security Council vote -- and in doing so demonstratively veered away from the Western alliance.

And now comes the third dispute, this time over refugees. Objectively speaking, relatively little is at stake; the number of stranded North Africans is still fairly small. But of all the European disputes, this one could prove the most difficult to resolve.

Immigration is an issue that motivates voters in all EU countries, as evidenced by the rise of right-wing populist parties in France, the Netherlands, Sweden and now Finland. But skepticism of a flux of newcomers from North Africa is everywhere -- and national interests have clearly trumped collective solidarity.

Isolation and Fury

Italy claims the current refugee crisis is an emergency, which would necessitate suspending the principle established under the so-called Dublin II Regulation, namely that a refugee can only apply for asylum in the country in which he arrives. Germany and France counter that they have already received far more asylum requests per year, namely about 40,000 each, while Italian authorities only process about 6,000 applications a year.

One reason Italian politicians are so furious is that they feel isolated. At a meeting of the EU interior ministers in Luxembourg last Monday, only the island nation of Malta supported the Italians. France, in particular, is nervous about immigration from primarily francophone North African countries.

Austrian Interior Minister Maria Fekter pointed out that Italy is a big country "and could certainly show a little good will." German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich likewise stood his ground, saying "Italy has to live up to its responsibility." He added that Rome's plan to issue travel visas violated "the spirit of Schengen."

The German minister announced Berlin's plan to increase scrutiny, particularly in southern Germany. Germany's federal police is even looking into how quickly it would be able to reintroduce regular border controls, even though only about 300 North Africans entered Germany in the first quarter of this year. The Italian interior minister, noting his isolation, said obstinately that he would rather be alone than "in bad company."

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