Nicolas Sarkozy and Silvio Berlusconi, at their meeting in Rome on Tuesday, decided that the European Union as a whole should bear the cost of the damage they have both done in recent weeks. When Berlusconi sought to employ an intolerable stratagem, granting a limited six-month residence permit to the Tunisians who have reached the island of Lampedusa so that they might move on to France, Sarkozy responded in accordance with his usual habit of acting first and thinking later, closing the border crossing of Ventimiglia for some hours. The initial clash of populist gestures resulting from the uprising in Tunisia was followed on Tuesday by equally populist, backslapping gestures of friendship, impregnating the whole Italo-French summit with a vague aroma of a jolly, anti-EU get-together.
Trapped in his own rhetorical line on immigration, Sarkozy did not promise Berlusconi that he would receive any Tunisians, which is what was in his power to do, and which, besides, would only be fair. To the contrary, rather, he agreed with Berlusconi to send a joint letter to Brussels requesting a reform of the Treaty of Schengen.
Sarkozy is the only French leader, and surely the only European one, who does not seem to have understood that the search for electoral profit at the expense of immigrants has done him no good, and is putting wind in the sails of the far-right National Front's presidential candidate, Marine Le Pen. If the proposal to review Schengen does not meet with a favorable reception (and it is hardly to be expected that it will) it will be the extreme right in France, and by extension in the rest of Europe, that receives the gift of championing a measure which Sarkozy and Berlusconi had failed to deliver.
The Union's incapacity to resolve the situation of the Tunisians crowded on Lampedusa is not the result of any deficiency in the Treaty of Schengen, nor of EU immigration laws, which have been toughened to almost undemocratic extremes. Its cause is strictly political, and has to do with the bloc's petty inability to assume its responsibilities in connection with the North African revolts. It is a cruel paradox that Sarkozy, so eager for military involvement in Libya, refuses to help alleviate, even within the framework of a European agreement, the migratory pressure that Italy now bears.
Sarkozy and Berlusconi also announced their intention to address the new Tunisian government, to demand that it collaborate more actively in the control of migratory flows. Needless to say Tunis will have to do this, since it is only natural in good relations between neighbors- but it is hardly very timely to propose to a transitional government an agreement that so greatly resembles the one concluded some time ago with the ousted dictator Ben Ali.
After the democratic uprisings in the Arab world, the European Union was supposed to have learned some lessons. In Rome, on Tuesday, it became clear that this was not the case.