A hard line on immigration looks like a political no-brainer these days. Politicians throughout Europe have read the writing on the wall and think they've discerned there a populist, anti-immigrant scrawl. Jean-Marie Le Pen's exploitation of the issue helped put him into the second round of France's presidential elections, though it wasn't compelling enough to prevent the withering of the National Front in this month's legislative elections. In the Netherlands, the late Pim Fortuyn's straight-talking take on the issue propelled his party into a still-nascent government coalition. The new Danish government rode to power astride that issue last fall, and polls suggest that it could help German conservative Chancellor-candidate Edmund Stoiber do the same in September. So, isn't it only fair to give Europe's politicians a modicum of credit for finally responding to public concern?
Up to a point, yes. When they convene this week in Seville for their semi-annual European Council meeting, European Union leaders will focus on immigration especially illegal immigration. When it comes to this, Spanish Prime Minister José María Aznar declared on a pre-summit tour of European capitals, "the masks of hypocrisy have to drop." Yet it seems likely that whatever decisions are made at Seville, more than a few hypocrisies will remain firmly in place. Despite the recognized need for a common E.U. policy on immigration, no government is eager to give power over such an explosive issue to unelected mandarins in Brussels. And no number of British warships in the Mediterranean, Italian cigarette boats in the Adriatic or watchtowers on the Poland-Belarus border are likely to reverse this natural law: human beings have always wanted to escape misery, and today many see the European Union as their final destination. "I don't see any important new developments in migration today," says Jean-Pierre Garson, the top expert on the matter with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris.
In a political sense, though, much has changed. A little over two and a half years ago, when E.U. leaders gathered in Tampere, Finland, to launch a common policy for asylum and immigration, the discussion was suitably noble and not a little vague. The principle, enshrined in the Amsterdam Treaty of 1999, was to make the E.U. a common "area of freedom, security and justice" within five years. Since then the European Commission has put forward numerous proposals to better apply those principles in practice. But with few exceptions, national governments have done more to stymie progress on the European level than further it. Now the leaders' political antennae have been tuned to a new frequency. In the current environment, freedom appears less important, justice is seen less as an ideal than as a question of enforcement and security has top billing. "The leaders want to take short-term action to show that the illegal flows can be stemmed," says a top Spanish official involved with preparing the summit. "After that, we'll proceed to the Tampere ideals."
For now, the political action on immigration still happens almost entirely on the national level. Laws have been tightened across the E.U., often without regard to the consequences in neighboring countries. The U.K. is ticked off about the flow of migrants from the Red Cross migrant center at Sangatte, by the French end of the Channel Tunnel. The Swedes don't like the toothpaste-tube effect that stricter Danish laws have had on their rising asylum numbers. And Italy's tough new proposed immigration laws include no provisions to apply the all but unenforceable Dublin Convention, by which asylum seekers in the E.U. are supposed to be processed where they first enter the Union instead of being shuffled on to the next country. With all those and more red flags to slalom around, E.U. leaders will be hard-pressed to come up with a meaningful catalog of joint action at Seville. A more precise picture is likely to emerge there of how E.U. countries can work together to tighten controls at the borders, and they will come up with tough language that threatens source countries with consequences unless they crack down on illegal immigrant flows. But those efforts occur at the margins of the Union; core state functions like integrating newcomers are likely to remain under the jealously guarded purview of member states.