Just when the Italian authorities were announcing a lessening of the crisis caused by the mass arrival of Arab refugees in southern Italy, fleeing from the violence in North Africa, France on Sunday ordered the closure of the border crossing at Ventimiglia to trains coming from northern Italy. It is not hard to link this measure, which is at odds with the Schengen accords on free circulation of persons within the European Union, with the plunging popularity of President Sarkozy, and the intense preparations being made by all the French political parties for the elections in 2012.
In recent months the anti-immigrant rightward shift of Sarkozy's party, the UMP, has been generally interpreted as an attempt to undercut the footing of the extreme right, represented by the National Front led by Marie Le Pen, which has made a hobbyhorse of the supposed dangers of immigration, and has been doing very well in the opinion polls.
On Saturday one train was still able to get through, carrying some 20 Tunisians who had received a temporary residence permit from the Italian authorities that ought to have guaranteed their freedom of movement. However, on Sunday France no longer permitted the passage of trains, at the same time announcing that it would only allow the entry of immigrants who could show a passport and evidence of financial means of support.
While this was happening, Rome announced that it had signed an agreement with Tunisia for the repatriation of all Tunisian nationals who land on Italian shores, and accordingly a first contingent of 333 Tunisians were returned to their land of origin. Meanwhile, the Italian intention is to share out among the other EU nations some part of the 20,000 refugees who have arrived in recent weeks and are being precariously lodged in southern Italy pending the processing of personal identification documents that will enable the Italians to pass them on to other countries.
The president of the European Commission, Herman van Rompuy, issued a bland call for calm, noting that the dimensions of the crisis should not be exaggerated. But he seems to have the wrong crisis in mind. However difficult it may be to handle the immigrant landslide, when public opinion ? especially in southern Europe ? is increasingly opposed to admitting more "visitors" in a time of economic difficulties, the really serious crisis is the one caused by France's unilateral action, in violation of UE agreements such as the Schengen protocol.
The European Union has clearly seen better moments, as shown by its inane and rhetorical reaction to the democratic revolts in the Arab world. All this gives rise to purely bilateral actions among the various European states, contrary to the building of a united Europe, such as the military intervention of France and the United Kingdom in Libya. And if Schengen is now to be a dead letter, then we may ask what the European Union is good for.