A European Union conference on immigration, like the one that took place last weekend in Madrid, would not normally be the chosen venue for political heavyweights to stage a slugfest. Yet, in the wake of Islamist extremist bombings on European soil and last year’s riots in French suburbs, these are not normal times to be an immigrant, or a government trying to formulate a coherent set of policies on immigration issues. Ahead of the EU ministerial summit, French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy upped the ante by calling for a Europe-wide ban on mass legalizations of immigrants, of the type employed by Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero’s Spanish government in 2005. The Spanish move added 580,000 names of previously black-market employees to the country’s social security and tax system. Zapatero had already told the conservative government in Paris “not to give Spain any lessons on immigration policy, the burning cars in the banlieues having lain bare French failures in the matter. To add to the mix, another presidential hopeful to rival Sarkozy, probable Socialist candidate Segolene Royal, was in Senegal, the country where many of the 26,000 sub-Saharan migrants detained in and around Spain’s Canary Islands this year alone hail from. Royal criticized the recent immigration accord signed by Senegal and France, in which Dakar promises to accept the return of its illegals in return for guaranteed visas for businessmen and other special groups – all at the cost for Sarkozy’s government of just $3.15 million in aid. Royal pointed out the sum paled into insignificance next to the $25.2 million shelled out by Madrid this year on trying to coax President Abdoulaye Wade into committing his government to a solid repatriation agreement. Wade has accepted the odd planeload of immigrants to be returned as part of a start-stop arrangement. He has also intimated that those attempting to flee in flimsy boats and those who organize the trade will face tough sentences, and even boosted police vigilance. However, he knows Spain’s need for a face-saving solution could be lucrative for his poor country in the long term. Determined to approach immigration in a refreshingly calm way, with papers for those who could be taken off the black market and other pro-integration measures, the Zapatero government has simply been overwhelmed by events. Since last year’s border-fence crisis in Spain’s North African enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, immigration has dominated news headlines with ever-increasing numbers arriving from West Africa – the migrant routes having been displaced southwards by Morocco’s compliance in mounting effective coastal patrols. The conservative opposition began to sniff the government’s vulnerability on the issue as it emerged that the Canary Islands’ holding camps were bursting at the seams with up to 8,000 sub-Saharans under the authority of just 30 police officers. After 40 days, the detained must be released, most ending up being distributed among the larger cities on the Spanish mainland. After the summer break, Zapatero’s deputy, Maria Teresa Fernandez de la Vega, struck a clanging new note, announcing that “sooner or later all illegals would be deported to their countries of origin. This get-tough approach was a bid to call a political truce with the Popular Party opposition, with an invitation to talks on a common policy, which the conservatives, like their colleagues in the French government, insist should include a ban on all amnesties for illegal workers. It is the situation in the Canaries, and similar influxes into Malta and Italy’s southern shores, that led to convening the EU conference devoted to immigration. Zapatero seems increasingly isolated as Spain’s southern European allies get short shrift from northern governments. Discussions earlier in the year led to a host of promises to set up a shield off the West African coast, but months have passed and the EU’s Frontex border agency force in the region is still awaiting the ships and aircraft promised by northern nations. Spain, Italy and Portugal are the only active contributors to this initiative so far. When the southern Spanish delegation reiterated its demands for assistance at a recent meeting in Finland, some European partners’ responses were derisory. “Spain is not going to collapse because 25,000 immigrants arrive in the Canary Islands, said one German delegate. The Austrian justice minister scoffed at Spain’s so-called crisis, saying that her country had had to deal with “448,000 refugees in one year, all on our own. Karin Gastinger added that legalizing undocumented migrants could not be the answer as it caused a “pull effect. Madrid’s proud claim to have put immigration policy at the heart of European discussions is beginning to ring hollow. Greater attention is certainly being paid to the problem, but there is little political will to share in the search for meaningful solutions. Indeed, at the bad-tempered Finnish conference, a Spanish minister argued that most of the Africans arriving in the Canaries were from francophone nations, and therefore likely to be heading for France, not Spain. Finally, Zapatero’s government had lapsed into the kind of parochial attitude that has characterized European nations’ treatment of the issue from day one. Sarkozy was the victor in Madrid. He said he didn’t want to give lessons to anyone, but came with his coherently conservative proposals to provide Europe with a coordinated immigration policy, including common criteria on asylum. Desperate to find common ground from which to battle illegal immigration more effectively, Spain said it would even study France’s suggestion that legalization drives never take place without prior discussion between EU partners. Even though mass legalizations appear to be off the menu for the foreseeable future, Spanish law does allow immigrants to get papers through a system known as “settling through employment, meaning that the reality of work availability can lead to legal recognition. There are still up to 1 million illegal immigrants living in Spain, and no government is going to live up to its promise of deporting such a pool of cheap labor. African (and Asian) poverty and European economic power (plus negative demographics) are set to be constants for decades to come. This is the much-vaunted pull effect. The only issue really worth discussing in Madrid was when that reality is given legal effect with a work permit or residency paper. Sarkozy, it seems, got his answer: never.
James Badcock is freelance writer based in Spain who specializes in North African and Middle Eastern affairs. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR