The sinking of a boatload of Somali immigrants off the island of Lampedusa seems to have set off something akin to a feeling of collective remorse in Italy. (Would that the human tragedy that is occuring on a regular basis just off the straits of Gibraltar could provoke a similar reaction here in Spain!) Indeed Belusconi (always the master of great theatre) appears to have had them near to tears over in Strasbourg.
Irony apart, even his old 'enemy' - the good-soldier schultz - is quoted as saying he has "the impression that what Mr Berlusconi said came from the heart". He could not however resist a reference to remarks which were last year attributed to Italian Reforms Minister Umberto Bossi to the effect that he wished the navy would open fire on ships carrying illegal migrants. Schulz is quoted as saying: "We are very happy that it is not those members of your government who want these boats sunk who are responsible for this issue in the (EU) home affairs council."
Well this is the second time this month I find myself asking whether Berlusconi is having a change of heart. Since I try not to engage in type M speculation, I don't need to answer this. What we might note is the way Interior Minister Pisanu is making the direct link with Italy's ageing population and (hence) pension difficulties. After the Greeks tried to raise the question in Thessalonika, we could ask ourselves whether the South of Europe (where the demographic collapse is most profound, and immigrants are traditionally less in evidence) is about to adopt a collectively different approach on this question.
Italian minister calls for European immigration quotas
The European Union needs to rethink its immigration policy by setting up a quota system, Italian Interior Minister Giuseppe Pisanu told the country's parliament Wednesday.
He was speaking two days after a boat carrying illegal immigrants, believed to be Somalis, sank off the southern Italian island of Lampedusa. At least 13 are known to have died but it is feared the death toll may be as high as 70. There were 15 survivors.
The parliamentarians observed a minute's silence in respect of the dead.
Pisanu, whose country holds the rotating presidency of the EU, put forward his scheme for quotas at a meeting of EU interior ministers last month.
The idea is that countries outside the EU would be granted quotas in return for undertakings to fight illegal immigration and take back their nationals who were refused admission to the EU or expelled from it. The proposal is being considered by the EU's executive arm, the European Commission.
"We have a duty to measure the size and complexity of the phenomenon of immigration and to seek to control it with rules and (the necessary) means," Pisanu said.
"Leaving the phenomenon to itself will cost us a lot more than any reasonable attempt to bring it under control."
Pisanu said that if there had been no immigration into Europe during the last 10 years it would have lost two percent of its population.
"If Italy has no immigration in the next 10 years... it will lose four and a half million people in the active population, in the 20 to 40 age range."
The illegal immigrants on the boat that sank off Lampedusa were Somalis fleeing civil war in their country, a news agency reported Wednesday.
The Roman Catholic agency Misna, which has close ties with humanitarian organisations, quoted Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders - MSF) as the source of its report.
"They were fleeing from (the Somali capital) Mogadishu to escape the threats of the clans that lay down the law in Somalia. They were all civilians," Loris De Filippi of MSF told Misna, speaking from Lampedusa, south of Sicily, where some of the 15 survivors are being cared for.
The deaths have shocked Italy and Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi called on "a Christian and civilised Europe" to open up to immigrants in a speech to the European Parliament in Strasbourg.
MSF quoted a survivor, Mohamed Osman, as saying that about 100 people, among them 17 women and seven children, left a small Libyan port on October 3. The boat's engine broke down almost at once and the vessel began drifting. After two days six people tried to swim to shore. The first death, that of a women, occurred on the fourth day.
On Tuesday the trial of two alleged human traffickers charged with manslaughter in connection with the deaths of 283 illegal immigrants in December 1996 was postponed so technical details could be examined.