Page last updated at 13:36 GMT, Tuesday, 2 June 2009 14:36 UK

In search of Europe: Italy

Illegal immigration is making Italians look to the EU for action, the BBC's Jonny Dymond reports, as he tours the continent ahead of this week's European elections.

BBC correspondent Jonny Dymond

I'm Jonny Dymond and I've said goodbye to the BBC Brussels bureau for the next few weeks. I'll be taking the temperature in nine EU member states before the European Parliament elections on 4-7 June. I'm going to ask voters what they think of the EU and what their priorities are. Join me on the trip!

On a warm summer's day, the thunder clouds banished from the northern Italian sky, the sunshine pours down on a park in Verona. For hours people stream from the city towards a large field.

The field is lined with stalls representing maybe more than two dozen countries - Thailand, Guyana, Congo, Brazil, the Philippines, and Nigeria are amongst those represented.

At the front of the field a stage has been built and bands from South America play, dancers go through their routines and, to the cheerful exhortations of organisers, the flags of countries not normally seen or heard of in Italy - or for that matter in much of the European Union - are paraded in front of the swelling crowd.

This is the Festa dei Popoli, a celebration of global diversity, held in town and cities across Italy every year. One of its organisers is Padre Fabrizio Colombo, a former missionary priest in Africa.

Padre Fabrizio
Padre Fabrizio celebrates diversity and encourages Italians to do likewise

He acknowledges the festival's good luck with the weather, explaining that it always seems to work like this, looking up into the skies and saying cheekily that "He" looks after the event.

"It's a day," Padre Fabrizio explains, "where we enjoy the cultures of others".

The day has a curiously un-Italian feel to it, with its overt display of diversity. For hundreds of years Italy has been an emigrant country; now it is learning to deal with the presence of many other races and cultures within its borders.

"I don't think it is a problem," says the Padre. "There are these two faces. On the people's side, we are ready to welcome. But unfortunately we are experiencing a political situation which sees immigration as an enemy - which it is not, actually."

Others out enjoying the sunshine are not so sure. An hour's drive away, in the town of Trento, those in the little town centre park mention immigration as a problem time and time again, when asked what's important about the upcoming election.

Northern Italy has traditionally been the great engine of Italian growth, sucking up manpower from the poorer South. Now that sucking sound has been heard over the other side of the Mediterranean, drawing hundreds of thousands of immigrants a year across the sea to what must seem like astonishing riches.

Paolo Fontaneri
This fruit seller says politicians must do more to tackle illegal immigration

Some of them are to be seen in the park, some without papers, many now without work. They sit, sleep and chat a few yards away from a sprinkling of stalls selling farm produce in the heat.

Behind a raspberry and strawberry stall Paolo Fontaneri, 64, hands over punnets and takes in cash. Decades ago, he says, he worked as a steward aboard the same cruise ship as Silvio Berlusconi, then a singer, now Italian prime minister. His one-time shipmate will get Paolo's vote come the elections this week.

"We need to fix the problem of immigration. Here in Italy a lot of people are coming with no documents at all. We do need foreign labour here in Italy. But they must be legal. They shouldn't be here looking for jobs for months. This is wrong."

Immigration is not the only issue in town. The economy and the environment are also mentioned, as is the need for greater European unity. There is still an enthusiasm for the EU amongst citizens of this founder-nation, that has been absent in so many other places I've visited.

But no single issue comes up as often as the need for controls on immigration. And many people see immigration as an EU responsibility. If necessary, a fair few people venture, the EU should get more powers to deal with the issue.

Why immigration is a high priority for Italian voters

There's a logic to that, according to Tito Boeri, a professor of economics and organiser of the hugely popular Economics Festival in Trento.

"Given that we are at the border of the Union, that we have all these sea borders with Africa, and we have all these people coming in," he says, Italians "would like Europe to be more effective and supporting Italy in border protection".

And he warns that the days when Italians' support for the EU could be counted on unconditionally are coming to an end.

"Until recently Europe was perceived as being our safety [net]," he says. "But now Europe has been somewhat disappointing to Italians. They are stuck in the middle of the river. They don't like the Italian ruling class. But they don't like the European one. They are a bit stuck in the doldrums."

Up and down the hills of Trentino, vines grow Chardonnay grapes for the Ferrari Spumante that was served, amongst many other places, at the celebrations in Rome of the 50th anniversary of the EU's founding.

Deep in the cellars of his family-owned company, Matteo Lunelli, the vice president of Ferrari Spumante, ponders Italy's European future.

As we talk, the bottles that line the walls from floor to ceiling twinkle out in the darkness.

"The two issues," he says, "that created some scepticism about Europe, have been the euro and immigration.

Matteo Lunelli, head of Ferrari Spumante vineyard
Common EU rules are vital, winegrower Matteo Lunelli says

"Italy by itself will never be able to set an agenda on these kinds of topics. Having common European rules and common European policies is the only way to go."

But he warns that you can't create a powerful Europe without the consent and even the enthusiasm of Europeans.

"Institutions, rules, have to go together with the mind of the people. You need great statesmen to bring a dream into the mind of the people."

If we want things to stay as they are, one Italian novelist wrote, things are going to have to change.

Italians, in this region at least, still seem to be supporters of the European project. That support is waning as circumstances change. Which of Europe's leaders can help Italians dream again?

Jonny Dymond's route across Europe
4 May - France
8 May - Ireland
12 May - UK
16 May - Sweden
21 May - Latvia
25 May - Poland
29 May - Austria
2 June - Italy
5 June - Germany

Jonny's response to your comments:

Sauro in Macerata writes that Italy has a long way to run before it becomes a European country. This seems a bit rich; in Trento there's a statue to one of its native sons - Alcide de Gasperi, one of the three architects of the Council of Europe and the European Coal and Steel Community. The European flag flies everywhere; enthusiasm for the EU is higher in Italy than in many EU countries and its citizens have for a long time appeared to prefer European government to their own. If Italy is not European, then not many places are.

Why am I not visiting Greece, Romania, Spain, Portugal et al? Because, Mira, whilst the spirit is willing the flesh is weak. Either I skid through the EU-27 in five weeks not talking to anyone and filing entirely token reporting, or I would have had to have started sometime in January to get round the entire continent. As it is, my beautiful children barely remember me.

As I explained to an aggrieved Belgian some countries back, the route has been chosen to try and cover most regions and types of countries. I think the lack of Iberian coverage is probably its greatest weakness. Even the mighty BBC is not perfect. Shock. Horror.

But good news, Mark and Jean Noel in Malta - as I write the BBC's heavyweight Europe Editor, Mark Mardell, is bound for Malta. You have not been forgotten, and never will be.

Thank you for your time, and your compliments. The end is near. Onwards, to the elections!

Some of your comments on Jonny's feature:

I think the EU should help Italy in the immigration issue because Italy is the southern European boundary, but Italy has a very long way to run to be a true European country. With the current political class it is very difficult to win this challenge, because the politicians often accuse the EU of being the cause of their problems...
Sauro, Macerata

Southern European Andalusia is one of the Spanish regions experiencing the highest levels of immigration in the country. Europe from the outside is often perceived as a Christian citadel of which Andalusia is a rampart against immigration. If the temperature needs to be taken anywhere surely the devoutly Catholic strongholds of southern Europe should be a starting point?
William, Bordeaux, France

What Italian citizens really want is an end to illegal immigration and greater internal security. The incompetent left-wing parties have not got over the fact that they received a hammering at the last election and are whipping up hatred and hysteria by accusing the government of xenophobia. True to his word, the Italian Interior Minister Roberto Maroni is quite simply ridding Italy of illegal immigrants, foreign criminals and social misfits. Italy is merely exercising its sovereign right to control its own borders. Who are we to deny Italy this prerogative?
gilmas, paris france

I just wonder why and how Italians seem to be worried about immigration, they are the ones who sort Italian passports to all peoples of the world, especially South Americans, a large number of Brazilians, nearly all Uruguayans and Argentines now hold an Italian passport, anybody whose great-great-grandfather was an Italian, no wonder there is so much immigration there. If all the member states of the EU adopt the same policy, all peoples from the Americas will have a European passport and obviously citizenship as 99 percent of them descend from Europeans, with very few exceptions.
J Martins, Belo Horizonte, Brazil

Omitting Spain, Portugal, Greece, Romania and Bulgaria from your route is pretty silly if you want to claim a representative European view.
Mira, Toronto

Nice article but Europeans have failed to understand many things. Remember the early 1900s? How many Italians, Scandinavians, Irish, Germans and even the French migrated across the Atlantic to the US in search of greener pastures and a better life? Stop complaining about something you don't understand. Nobody owns the world and rightly the world is built on immigration. Cubans just need to be able to get into US waters to be accepted into the country.

Leave Africa and Africans alone, this is their era of immigration. The European immigration period has passed and now it's the time for Africans to continue the way of life. God bless the world,legal or illegal immigration can never be killed.
Friis, Oslo, Norway

To Adigun Olosun: Adigun, you ask for a "Marshall Plan" for Africa by Europe, but there is little chance of this working. Kenya alone has received 125% of the current equivalent of ALL the money spent in the original Marshall Plan, yet it languishes in untold poverty.

"Immigration" in Europe is generally a code word for "Immigration of Africans", as one does not really see the Italians protesting the many European citizens moving south for sunnier climes. Europe should not give Africa more money, but should get stricter with its trade and diplomatic relations, the better to force African leaders to reduce corruption and actually try to develop their countries.
Peter Wanyonyi, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

Unfortunately, with this right-wing government things are not improving at all as Berlusconi needs to be seen as anti-immigration as he can manage to please his far right Northern League xenophobic, racist coalition partners - to which he is closely knit to keep his grip on the country - that economically are exploiting this situation for their political advantage.

As many are saying here in Rome, Italy is already a multiracial country, despite right-wingers shouting to the contrary up North especially. Marco Rossi, Rome, Italy

In reality, it is difficult to control human migration because human beings are made to be migrating. What the EU needs to do to minimise immigration from Africa is to create something like the Marshall Plan which developed Europe after World War II. If Africa is also rich, jobs are there and people are having comfortable life like the West, immigration will be reduced only to those who have something to do in Europe.
Adigun Olosun, Ostbevern, Germany

Your article was fairly accurate. My compliments. I am glad you made it up to Trento, which is a lovely little city and only half an hour away from my hometown. I can also vividly picture the Ferrari Spumante factory right off the A22 highway and their factory flying the Italian and EU flag (a fact that you could also have mentioned). Mr. Lunelli represents the archetypical upper-middle class opinion of the EU among Northern Italians; so very well done, indeed.
Lukas, Bolzano, Italy

Hmmmm, well if I am to say something, even if they are being strict with immigrants then let it be with those without papers/stay, but those coming with correct visa, those coming to join their husbands and those coming to see and learn should not be stopped. Thanks and best regards as we work together to make our world a better place.
Mrs Amadi, Lagos, Nigeria.

Why is Malta never even acknowledged when illegal immigration is brought up?
Mark Said, Malta

I am surprised you are not reporting from the Basque Country. Very interesting things are taking place there. The Basque left-wing pro-independence parties have been banned from taking part in local and national elections. Now there is a change to test how much support we have in the European elections. I have been following Iniciativa Internacionalista, the party that was banned by the government in the National Audience Court and then allowed by the Tribunal Supremo. This must be surely an interesting development, isn't it?
kiko moraiz, uk

How come Mr.Dymond did not visit the tiny island of Malta? Being one of the 'newer' member states it would have been an interesting experience to see the Maltese point of view. The Maltese, just like the Italians, are very conscious of illegal immigration. However, I believe that Malta's economy is also one of the main focal points which is featuring in the EP Elections.

Yet, I noted that during the electoral campaign, the two large political parties here in Malta are not actually setting out a campaign set up on WHAT TO DO, once elected in the European Parliament. It is a campaign based on who is the best,
Jean Noel Cutajar, Zebbug - Malta

Why are you skipping the whole Iberian Peninsula? The effects of EU policies are very much on display in Portugal, with the rich becoming richer and the inverse for the poor.
fern, Lisbon

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MEP Seats

  Votes MEPs
Party % +/- % Total +/-
EPP 33.4 -1.4 264 -18
Socialists 23.2 -4.1 183 -26
Liberal 11.0 +1.6 84 +5
Green 7.4 +1.3 50 +9
Left 5.3 -0.6 34 -2
UEN 3.4 +1.6 28 +2
Ind/Dem 2.7 -1.8 21 -15
No Group 13.6 +3.4 72 +3.4
0 of 27 countries declared.

UK Total MEP Seats

Party Votes MEPs
% +/- % Total +/-
CON 27.7 1.0 *26 1
UKIP 16.5 0.3 13 1
LAB 15.7 -6.9 13 -5
LD 13.7 -1.2 11 1
GRN 8.6 2.4 2 0
BNP 6.2 1.3 2 2
SNP 2.1 0.7 2 0
PC 0.8 -0.1 1 0
OTH 8.5 2.4 0 0
SF 1 0
DUP 1 0
72 of 72 seats declared. Vote share figures exclude Northern Ireland as it has a separate electoral system to the rest of the UK
* Includes UCUNF MEP elected in Northern Ireland
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