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Tuesday, 18 June, 2002, 10:03 GMT 11:03 UK
'Fortress Europe' raises the drawbridge
Police during the race riots that took place in northern England last year
Fears over immigration may fuel racial tension
Paul Reynolds

In the first of a BBC News Online series on Europe and immigration, Paul Reynolds looks at the changing mood and the attempts to find a common approach:

On the face of it, it is logical that asylum and immigration policy should be dealt with at a European Union level - a European approach for a European issue.

EU governments did promise, at a meeting at Tampere in Finland in 1999, to bring it under their joint control within five years.

But progress has been slow, because at the heart of it, governments are unwilling to give up power, especially over such a sensitive issue.

So it is individual governments which are making policy. And not always in harmony with their neighbours.

Closing the door

A British Government official told the BBC that the process of agreeing common policies had got "bogged down" and "needed a kick up the backside."

Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar has placed it on the agenda for the summit in Seville which Spain, as current EU president, is hosting.

Sign on barbed fences around the Channel Tunnel
Immigrants are willing to risk their lives to get to their destination

There are two main aspects - keeping out those who have no right to come and integrating those who do.

Fortress Europe is willing to lower the drawbridge for the few but keep it firmly up for the many. And it is trying to tell those already inside the castle that they ought to join in and not keep themselves to themselves.

And note how governments use the phrase "asylum seekers."

The old word was "refugee", but that perhaps sounds more favourable to those seeking a new life as it implies that they are fleeing oppression.

Most of them, governments say, are seeking work, not sanctuary.

Trend for intolerance

All this is driven by recent electoral trends which show that people across Europe are reacting against others they regard as strangers in their midst.

And yet those strangers might have been born and bred in the same town.

Jose Aznar
PM Aznar has put immigration at the top of the EU's agenda

These trends have shown up right across the EU - from riots in Oldham in northern England, to the rise of the assassinated Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn, to the votes for the National Front leader Jean Marie Le Pen in France and even to normally tolerant Denmark, which has just passed laws to make immigration harder.

In 2001, the EU countries had 380,000 applications for asylum.

Only a small proportion, 1 to 5%, are successful, although not everyone who fails actually gets deported and in some crises - such as Bosnia in 1992 - almost everyone gets approved as they are clearly at risk.

So governments have decided to take action on two fronts.

First - they want to keep people out.

There is, however, no overall European Union approach.

The EU has to abide by international conventions that those at risk cannot simply be sent back where they came from nor punished for the act of entering a country without permission.

But beyond that, there is not even an agreed definition as to who a "refugee" is.

Governments want better integration for those already here and for those coming in legally

And differing countries have differing rules as to who can stay and for how long; how they can appeal against a decision to deport and who can work and when.

Asylum seekers or refugees trying to get into England across the channel from France illustrate this problem.

In Britain, they are allowed to work after being there for six months. In France it takes them a year.

This is one reason they head for the channel tunnel.

United approach

Those wanting a more coordinated approach hope that two key decisions can be taken soon.

Firstly, they want agreement on how to handle asylum applications. This is shorthand for speeding them up. There is a patchwork of systems at the moment.

Pim Fortuyn
Fortuyn, a homosexual, said he would not tolerate Islam because it did not tolerate him

Some countries allow the refugees to stay while any appeal is held. Others can send them on to a third country, if one can be found, in the meantime.

Britain is the latest to follow this approach.

Secondly they are hoping for agreement on which country is responsible.

In theory this was sorted out by an agreement reached in Dublin which laid down that the first port of call was where the immigrant should be dealt with.

But this is not followed in practice as the immigrants move across frontiers and governments don't always want them back.

Swearing allegiance

In the absence of EU wide policies, individual member states are taking their own action.

Their common aim is to reduce the numbers arriving by making the chances of success less and less likely.

Secondly, governments want better integration for those already here and for those coming in legally.

The old idea of a multicultural society is giving way to the new ambition of integrating immigrant communities as much as possible.

Language classes, even pledges of allegiance are the talk of the moment.

A new balance is being sought between the right of communities to their own customs and the right of society to cohesion.

The concept of tolerance is being altered to include tolerance of the majority by the minority.

For some in minority communities, of course, this can be a danger. It can spell intolerance.

At the same time, many governments, aware that their economies need an influx of extra workers, are easing rules for those who have qualifications.

Germany, for example, has recently relaxed its rules in order to attract thousands of professional people from abroad every year.

If the cry, though less loud these days, in the United States is: "Give me your tired, your poor", in the European Union it is: "Give me your qualified, your educated"

For some the drawbridge is being lowered; for many it is being shut.



Case studies

See also:

13 Jun 02 | UK Politics
31 May 02 | Europe
21 May 02 | UK Politics
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