If the government of Silvio Berlusconi is to be believed, Italy is facing a tsunami of illegal migrants – Tunisians, mostly. Begging and pleading for more sharing of the “burden” between European Union member states, Italy has been threatening to let these illegal migrants move on freely into its partners’ states by providing them with “temporary residence permits” valid for three months. These permits, Italy insists, would force other states to take them in.

Her EU partners – Germany, Austria and France in particular – failed to appreciate this attempt at blackmail, and at a meeting of the Council of Ministers of Justice and the Interior on April 11 in Luxembourg they said so clearly to the Italian representative, Roberto Maroni – a prominent member of the Northern League, a regionalist, anti-immigration party.

“We cannot accept that many economic migrants are coming to Europe via Italy. This is why we expect Italy to comply with the existing legislation and to fulfil its obligations”, declared the German Interior Minister, Hans-Peter Friedrich, adding that he was ready to re-impose controls at the internal borders of the EU. Following on from this, France’s Claude Guéant announced that he would tighten up border controls between France and Italy and return illegal Tunisians to the other side of the Alps.

Implying the EU is a sieve

No surrender, then, to Italian blackmail. Maroni let his anger explode and took the war of words a step further: “Italy has been abandoned. [...] In this situation, I really have to wonder if being part of the EU means anything.”

“All this is pure electioneering in Italy, and in France too,” is the opinion of Patrick Weil, director of research at CNRS and a specialist in immigration. “Actually, there is no incoming flood, contrary to what the Italian government is saying and what is suggested by the extraordinary images from the island of Lampedusa,” entry point for most of the undocumented Tunisians.

In fact, since the revolution in Tunisia in January only 25,800 people have landed on the Italian coasts, which is remarkably little in light of the economic situation in Tunisia and the war in Libya. This figure is even less remarkable when one takes into account that Italy – which has become a land of immigration – has in recent years regularised over a million undocumented migrants, who came in several waves. The last such operation dates back to 2009. “There is no real ‘burden’ to share”, Patrick Weil says with some irony. “This influx is within the norms and is manageable.”

Rome, however, wants to turn this issue into a European problem by implying that the EU is a sieve. This way, it scores double points by pandering to the xenophobia and Euroscepticism of a certain sector of the Italian electorate. Contrary to what the Berlusconi government says, issuing temporary residence permits does not permit freedom of movement to another EU country, as pointed out by the European Commission, which is furious at this abuse of the rules.

Italy is receiving from Frontex in guarding its borders

Indeed, if a 2003 directive does grant right of residence throughout the EU to non-EU nationals, it is on condition that they have a long-term residency (not a mere three months) and that they have the means to support themselves (employment or savings). Similarly, if foreign nationals gain the right to move freely within the EU, it is also on condition that they have the means to do so. Foreign nationals given only simple temporary residence permits and lacking means will be returned to the country of first asylum – in this case, Italy.

The fact that the fixed controls were abolished between member states in the Schengen area does not mean that states have relinquished all control. Mobile checks are perfectly legal and, in the events of threats to public order or public safety, the borders may be temporarily restored. In short, Claude Guéant knows he is onto a sure thing when he claims he will use “all legal means to enforce the Schengen Convention.”

Italy’s criticism of its partners is all the more unwelcome in view of the assistance it is receiving from Frontex in guarding its borders. In effect, this European agency allows member states to pool resources when problems come up, which is largely what is already happening along the EU’s eastern borders. Moreover, Guéant and Maroni agreed on Friday in Rome “to organise joint patrols of the Tunisian coast to block departures,” and to do so under the authority of Frontex. Finally, the EU has promised financial help for Tunisia to manage the transition and, in return, will require the new authorities to cooperate in the fight against illegal immigration, which they have already begun to do.

Much ado about nothing?