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September 19, 2019

The North-African impact

The Arab spring has some of the most unexpected consequences. Not only it is pushing a dormant, yet extremely powerful conflict to the surface, one that is developing into a genuine ‘cold war’ between Iran and Saudi Arabia, between the Shia and Sunni states, as the international media suggests, with the situation in Syria now reaching the phase of large-scale military reprisals (the Libyan model?), but it also determines political developments in the EU.

The EU has been lately confronted with a problem the solution of which has been a subject of dispute and even discord – the monetary union in the context where the financial crisis put the very future of the single European currency at issue. Once the massive deficits of Greece, Ireland and Portugal had required EU support to prevent default, a certain reticence to a joint bailout action – one that, indeed, amounted to several billions of euros for each of the aforementioned states – could be identified at the beginning.

The lack of consistency in granting assistance to indebted states, the slow construction of prevention and action instruments in a situation of financial crisis at the level of the bloc caused many commentators to doubt the validity of not just the euro, but of the EU as a whole. Even in the most recent case – Portugal’s – providing the sums required to avoid default by the common contribution of the member states encounters difficulties, especially following the cautious attitude of countries such as Finland, where the recent legislative election indicated a massive surge of Euroscepticism among the public.

With the EU still in a phase of dealing with economic issues, directly connected to the internal policies of the organisation, the Arab spring unexpectedly brings a new acute problem, this time an external one, which creates further division and friction among ‘The 27’. It is the question of immigration from North Africa, where political regimes have been changed or are being changed right now, starting with Tunisia, continuing with Egypt and Libya, with the prospect of enhanced inflows of migrants.

Italy was the first EU state to face the new problem since the beginning of the Northern-African crisis, so far having recorded almost 30,000 immigrants coming mainly from Tunisia. Besides the difficulties encountered, Italy called for ‘European solidarity’ and, faced with the inertia of the answer, a few Italian politicians made a few unbecoming statements on the usefulness of the EU in crisis. When, during an EU interior ministers’ meeting, the representative of Italy asked his colleagues to accept Tunisian immigrants, they refused. The Italian minister’s comment was striking: ‘I wonder if it makes sense to stay in the European Union.’

More than that, under the Schengen Agreement, Italy issued temporary stay permits valid for a period of six months to the immigrants, which allow them to move freely and without a passport in the entire EU. Having been the favourite destination of many such stay permit holders, France has taken measures to strengthen border control and has even sent the immigrants back to Italy, which raised the temperature of bilateral relations. Other countries in the EU have pointed out that member states are supposed to manage such situations themselves, the reality being that the Union has no level policy in the area of economic migration, refugees and even asylum seekers. According to Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini, ‘The problem of immigration is becoming a bit like the nuclear issue. Everyone wants to say something about it, but no one wants it in their backyard.’

It is in such a context that the 29th Franco-Italian bilateral summit took place on Tuesday, April 26, with French President Nicolas Sarkozy meeting with Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi in Rome. On the agenda there was also this matter of North-African immigrants (we need to say that important migration inflows caused by the so-called Arab spring have even been reported in the Northern part of the African continent, where nearly 600,000 immigrants have been recorded in the last few months). Setting aside statements reiterating the special quality of the Franco-Italian relations – ‘very positive summit’, ‘to us more than Europe, Italy is a sister-country’ – both parties also took a stance on the immigration issue which has put bilateral relations under stress lately.

Both Sarkozy and Berlusconi said they were in favour of ‘amending’ stipulations of the 1985 Schengen Agreement on the free movement in the EU because of the current ‘exceptional circumstances’. The agreement was, naturally, accompanied by other statements expressing the two states’ attachment to the values of the Schengen Agreement. ‘We want Schengen to exist, but, for that to be possible, Schengen needs to be reformed,’ said Sarkozy. ‘We want its text and its evaluations to be strengthened, but, most of all, we want the means to guarantee the borders of the Schengen Area. It is because we believe in Schengen that we want it to become stronger.’ Berlusconi, in turn, stressed out that France had made a major effort in the context of the North-African crisis taking in five times more Tunisian immigrants than Italy, for instance. The two leaders, however, did not give too many details on the modality in which they intend to pursue the provisions of the Schengen Agreement.

The two senior officials’ statements are only revealing the sensitive situation of the immigration and free movement of individuals in the EU. According to a French analyst, ‘ with European countries being re-nationalised and with the xenophobic trend gaining strength, governments have become very careful about new migration flows. At the same time, such attitude collides with the liberal European models and demand for labour force in several countries in Europe.’ Despite the fact that Northern African regimes have collapsed, the old European policy trying to convince countries in the region to assure strict border control and to contain their nationals is still up and running for a variety of reasons.
The two European leaders called for a re-definition of EU relations with third countries in the area of migration, especially with countries of Southern Mediterranean, as any new important migratory inflows could generate a crisis that would decrease the confidence of the European public in the quality of the Schengen Agreement. It is still to be determined how profound the re-definition will be, if it will also mean a change for the two EU member states that are still outside of the agreement – Romania and Bulgaria – or if it will restrict the free movement of EU citizens – one of the pillars of the liberal policy of the organisation and of the planned united political future of the continent. Let’s keep up optimism.

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