Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Buttiglione compromised on immigration?

The chances are that Barroso is going to regret giving the justice, freedom and security portfolio to Italian Rocco Buttiglione. Immigration, already a highly emotive issue in Italy, has this week soared up the domestic agenda with the head of Italy's coastguard, Admiral Eugenio Sicurezza, effectively accusing Berlusconi of leaving illegal immigrants to die at sea.

Berlusconi has already suffered a number of political storms over immigration, not least in June 2003 when a minister in his coalition government, Umberto Bossi, demanded that boats carrying illegal immigrants should be fired upon if they attempted to land in Italy. Quoted in the Corriere della Sera newspaper, Bossi was reported as saying, "After the second or third warning, boom... the cannon roars."

Since then, the Berlusconi government has considerably tightened up its monitoring of landing sites, bringing down the rate of illegal entries into southern Italy by almost half. Migrant-traffickers, however, have responded by ceasing to attempt illegal landings and instead have taken to casting their human cargoes loose in the Mediterranean aboard boats which Admiral Sicurezza describes as "at the limits of seaworthiness".

Earlier this month almost 30 abandoned Africans had died of cold and dehydration before a further 75 barely conscious survivors were saved by a merchant ship. "The fact is," the Admiral says, "that we have to take responsibility for the lives of these poor wretches. Full stop. There is no question that is the way it is. No mariner would ever let people die at sea."

However, there is no indication that Berlusconi’s government, under pressure from its Northern League coalition partners, is ready to relax its hard line. Instead, it is calling for immigration "gateways" to be established outside Europe to help regulate the flow of would-be immigrants. This policy is clearly supported by Buttiglione, who has already called for the setting up of holding centres for would-be immigrants in countries of transit, such as Libya.

But, with the Buttiglione shortly to seek approval of his appointment from the EU parliament, where MEPs may well be appalled by Italy's inhumane treatment of the illegals, we could be seeing Barroso's choice being heavily criticised on the basis that an Italian commissioner is compromised by the actions of his own government.

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