Interior ministers from Italy, Cyprus, France, Greece, Malta and Spain met yesterday in Rome to discuss crisis in Libya that could drive a wave of immigration across the Mediterranean on a 'biblical scale'.
Europe braces for tidal wave of refugees from across Mediterranean
MARSEILLES // Europeans watching from afar raise eyebrows at media images, or amateur footage when professional coverage is impossible, portraying events in the Middle East and North Africa.
But much as they deplore harsh measures to counter political protest, they are more concerned still at the threat that widespread unrest will lead to immigration, on an enormous scale, towards their own countries.
The Italian foreign minister, Franco Frattini, said yesterday the crisis in Libya could, if - as seems likely - it deepens, drive a wave of immigration across the Mediterranean on a "biblical scale".
"We know what awaits us when the Libyan regime falls: a wave of 200 to 300,000 immigrants," Mr Frattini told the Corriere della Sera newspaper.
Interior ministers from Italy, Cyprus, France, Greece, Malta and Spain met yesterday in Rome to ponder one inescapable fact: if a wind of protest is sweeping a region from Bahrain to the Maghreb, the hard rain it carries may well fall on Europe.
When the Tunisian riots led not only to the fall of president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali but also to an exodus, it was to Europe and notably Italy to which the departing Tunisians fled. Alarmed, Italy offered to dispatch its own police officers, a proposition rejected as an affront to Tunisian sovereignty, and then came up with money and technical expertise, readily accepted.
But still the immigrants come. Several thousands have arrived on the small Italian island of Lampedusa, numbers with which the authorities have struggled to cope.
Historical attachments also place Italy on the front line if, as seems inevitable, large numbers of Libyans try to escape the bloody unrest in their country.
European countries have reacted with collective dismay to Libyan warnings that it could suspend co-operation on human trafficking because of the EU's condemnation of the shooting of protesters.
"We are extremely concerned about the evolution of the situation in North Africa," Michele Cercone, speaking for the EU home affairs commissioner, Cecilia Malmstroem, told reporters.
Italy sees itself as engaged in perpetual struggle with the implications of an influx of people seeking a better life.
It has sought to stem the tide with a contentious arrangement with Libya that allows the Italian navy to intercept boat people and send them home. But ministers in Rome know that if Libya adopted a retaliatory more lax approach, or withdrew such co-operation, their own problems would worse,
Other southern European countries also fear fallout. France has ties with Tunisia, but also Morocco and especially Algeria. And the outbreak of serious protest in Morocco and simmering tension in Algeria leave France wary. Spain, too, has reason for concern.
All three countries, but particularly Italy and Spain, have pressing economic problems of their own. Public opinion demands more controls on immigration, not fewer.
The rhetoric of the far right in several European countries has influenced thinking generally, and there is a tendency to blame immigrants for such social ills as unemployment, insufficient housing and crime.
Integration is also an issue. Many of Maghrebin backgrounds are assimilated successfully into French society, for example; many more experience routine discrimination in jobs, education and housing.
Such problems arise already as a result of a more orderly stream of north and sub-Saharan Africans towards the northern shores of the Mediterranean.
If reports from Brussels are correct, the prospect of Muammar Qaddafi being swept from office in Libya, for so long, in the past, an event strongly desired in the West, is regarded by growing numbers of EU officials as a potential nightmare.
Mr Frattini believes the EU must make an immediate start on its own equivalent of the post-war Marshall Plan by funding a series of measures to help improve the lives of people in the region.
But he also voiced worries about the course some of the protests may be taking. "I'm extremely concerned about the self-proclamation of the so-called Islamic Emirate of Benghazi," Mr Frattini was quoted as saying on Tuesday. "Would you imagine having an Islamic Arab Emirate at the borders of Europe? That would be a really serious threat."
This may be seen in other quarters as scaremongering and an attempt by one beleaguered country to force the hands of others into a strategy of discouraging illegal immigration and actively stiffening resistance to it.
Most observers would accept that the EU foreign ministers were sincere when they said in a statement after their meeting on Monday: "The legitimate aspirations and demands of people for reform must be addressed through open, inclusive, meaningful and national Libyan-led dialogue."
Increasingly, however, the EU recognises that the crisis has the power to travel - and does not threaten one or two countries alone.
Laurent Wauquiez, France's European affairs minister, said: "With the migratory pressure centred in some countries - Greece, Malta, Italy and Spain - we cannot say to them, 'You're on you're own.' If we have common borders, we have to exercise community solidarity."