Behind the Migrant Row, Europe Keeps Shifting to the Far Right

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Antonio Parrinello / Reuters

People who fled unrest in Tunisia arrive at the southern Italian island of Lampedusa

When France temporarily blocked trains from Italy headed to French coastal destinations over the weekend, the move marked a dramatic escalation in the two countries' spat over how to handle migrants fleeing unrest in North Africa — and raised legal questions about fundamental travel accords long embraced by many European Union member states. But the clashes over the trains carrying Tunisian passengers from Italy to France and E.U. points beyond are even more significant in reflecting a deep and hardening anti-immigration sentiment across Europe — one that's now being exploited by mainstream conservatives who once shunned the stigmatization of immigrants as the toxic reserve of the xenophobic extreme right.

The simmering Franco-Italian row boiled over in the morning of April 17 when French authorities barred trains from Italy's border town Ventimiglia from crossing into Menton, France. The reason: a group of some 300 French protesters were aboard what they dubbed the "dignity train" carrying around 60 Tunisians who hold temporary residence papers granted by Italy. The protesters were attempting to denounce France's contention that those Italian-issued visas don't grant automatic travel rights to other nations in the open-border Schengen zone. Instead, Paris argues that the holders of those temporary documents — issued after the Tunisians illegally entered Italy to flee turmoil at home — must also carry passports and proof of financial support to qualify for unrestricted travel under terms of the Schengen treaty. French authorities also justified blocking the train on the grounds that the protesters on board hadn't obtained demonstration permits in France. Before France lifted its blockade of Italian trains late Sunday afternoon, Italy had filed an official protest, calling the stoppage "illegitimate and in clear violation of general European principles" on free circulation of people and goods. On Monday, the E.U. backed France's decision to temporarily halt the trains for "public-order reasons."

But the rift goes well beyond the contested voyagers on the dignity train. Those Tunisian travelers were among between 20,000 and 26,000 migrants who have fled Tunisia's postrevolutionary unrest in recent weeks and made the perilous boat trip to Italy's small Mediterranean island of Lampedusa. Rome has sought to relieve the overload of refugees — and the humanitarian crisis they could face — on Lampedusa by giving most of those migrants three-month Italian residence visas.

But French authorities say that Rome's pragmatism masks Italy's desire to unload its refugee problem onto the other Schengen member states in which most of those visa-carrying Tunisians will likely end up. Not coincidentally, France — Tunisia's former colonial ruler — is the most likely destination for recently arrived Tunisians. Italy denies the allegations that it's seeking to shift its problem to its neighbors. But it also insists that its position as the country through which many North Africans seek to gain entry to wider Europe means that management of the migration wave created by the Arab Spring is as much the E.U.'s responsibility as it is Italy's.

Such conflicting positions arise from what are, in fact, common public concerns about immigration throughout Europe. Indeed, while the government of Silvio Berlusconi was among the first to adopt a controversial hard line on the issue, spreading anti-immigrant sentiment has motivated ruling conservatives in other E.U. nations to adopt similar stands. That's especially true in France, where President Nicolas Sarkozy and his government have been accused of stigmatizing minorities, Muslims and foreigners as part of an anti-immigration strategy to head off the surging far-right National Front Party. In recent days, French Interior Minister Claude Guéant has gone beyond the usual pledges to battle illegal immigration by promising to also cut the number of legal immigrants allowed into France. The proposal has generated protests from leftists and conservatives alike, with both groups saying that making immigration a scapegoat for electoral purposes only benefits true extremists in the National Front. Meanwhile, even Guéant's own Cabinet colleagues have stepped up to denounce his recent pledge as harmful to a French economy that now relies on legal immigration to boost declining labor reserves.

"[Guéant] is making very cynical, manipulative statements and taking controversial positions for political reasons that only complicate the work of people trying to address the real concerns and demands of the French people," says an adviser to one French Cabinet member. "His positions on Italy and on legal immigration ... are purely political, and part of a dangerous game he's playing."

But it's one also being played elsewhere in the E.U. Earlier this month, U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron also pledged to cut legal immigration, and indicated new arrivals would have to try harder to integrate than their predecessors. Critics claimed that Cameron's comments were a nod to the rising influence of the British Nationalist Party, a move akin to Sarkozy's defensive bow to his extreme right and Berlusconi's long partnership with the rising might of neofascist forces. Similar temptations are also at work in Belgium, Sweden, Hungary and the Netherlands, where antiforeigner parties have made significant gains in recent elections. Those were capped on Sunday by Finland's nationalist, anti-immigration, E.U.-phobic True Finns party winning a whopping 19% of seats in Parliament.

Such victories are signs that the embers of xenophobia are indeed aglow throughout Europe. But cynical efforts by mainstream conservatives to fan the flames in a bid for votes could soon have the blaze raging out of control.