Italian voters in April returned Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to a third term in office. The center-right leader was given a strong mandate to crack down on runaway immigration and spiraling street crime, two hot-button issues that are intrinsically linked, not just in the minds of Italians, but in those of many other Europeans too, especially in Spain.
As a result, Spanish Socialists are (rightly) worried that Berlusconi’s get-tough approach will jeopardize their own fantastical vision of turning Europe into a post-modern multicultural utopia.
It therefore comes as no big surprise that Spanish Socialist Deputy Prime Minister María Teresa Fernández de la Vega, who is also commonly known as Spain’s high-priestess of political correctness, recently lashed out at the no-nonsense immigration policies of the new Italian government. Her pontifical rebuke declared that the Spanish executive “rejects violence, racism and xenophobia, and therefore cannot agree with what is happening in Italy.”
De la Vega’s outburst came after Italian police raided the illegal encampments of gypsy squatters in Rome and the southern Italian port city of Naples, and arrested some 400 immigrants (from Romania as well as Albania, China, Morocco) allegedly associated with various crimes. The police action was in response to vigilante violence in which mobs, provoked by rumors that a Roma teenage girl had attempted to steal an Italian baby, torched a gypsy slum in a low-income suburb of Naples. The incidents follow a series of highly-publicized crimes in Italy involving Roma and other immigrants.
According to an opinion poll published by the center-right Il Giornale, most Italians are weary of unregulated immigration and want to expel unemployed Roma, known in Italy as “nomads”. Almost seven out of ten Italians said they favored DNA tests and fingerprinting of all Roma for a census.
Demonizing the Opposition
Since Spanish Socialists (more often than not) have trouble winning arguments on their own merit, the preferred tactic is to demonize their opponents instead. And so De la Vega’s comments were echoed by the new Spanish Minister for Labor and Immigration, Celestino Corbacho, who felt obliged to accuse Berlusconi of wanting “to criminalize those who are different.”
Meanwhile, Spain’s newly anointed ‘Equality Minister’, the 31-year-old Bibiana Aído (who as the youngest cabinet member in Spanish history has a cumulative total of less than five years of professional work experience), took Berlusconi to task for including only four women in his 21-member cabinet (in contrast with that of Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, which has a female majority) and said that Berlusconi might benefit from psychological therapy in order to cure his sexual prejudices. Just for good measure, she added: “I do not know if it would be very effective. He would need many sessions.” (And Spanish diplomats wonder why Spain gets so little respect abroad.)
Then, as if on cue from the Zapatero government itself, the Spanish leftwing mass media unleashed a merciless anti-Italy propaganda campaign, not unlike the ones they usually reserve for bashing the United States. Sycophantic commentators warned that Italy was being taken over by “fascists” (Spanish leftists routinely use the word “fascist” to describe anyone who does not subscribe to their enlightened ideas) and admonished Italians to adopt Spain’s morally superior “tolerant” approach toward crime and immigration. And just in case anyone missed the point, some Spanish newspapers published trite political cartoons blending the Italian flag with a swastika.
Italian Interior Minister Roberto Maroni reacted angrily by saying: “The criticisms leveled at us I find totally unjustified and are due to ideological prejudice or a lack of information on the matter.” Franco Frattini, Italy’s foreign minister and former European commissioner for immigration said that Spain should mind its own business and that Zapatero should exert some discipline over his ministers, noting that: “Frankly, it is time to stop these [political] pitch invasions,” which are “pointlessly polemical.”
In any case, European Commission spokesperson Pietro Petrucci says that Italy had not violated any European Union laws on the free movement of labor. And Zapatero is now trying to defuse the controversy by way of linguistic gymnastics: He says his ministers have been “misunderstood”.
Spain’s Blame Game
The entire episode is oddly reminiscent of Zapatero’s visit to Mexico in July 2007, when he ended a state dinner by declaring that: “There is no wall that can obstruct the dream of a better life.” The “wall” that Zapatero was so worried about was the anti-illegal immigrant fence along parts of the 2,000 mile (3,200 km) border between Mexico and the United States, and not the 10-foot (three meter) high triple razor wire-topped fences that separate the Spain’s north African colonies of Ceuta and Melilla from those people in Morocco and the rest of Africa who have dreams of a better life in Spain.
At the time, Zapatero was trying to divert attention away from the fact that more than a dozen would-be migrants were killed, and many more injured by rubber bullets or beatings, in their bids to enter Spain via Ceuta and Melilla. Moreover, a damning report by the New York-based Human Rights Watch accused Spanish authorities of mistreating and neglecting hundreds of migrant African children at holding centers on the Canary Islands.
This year, Amnesty International, in its annual report for 2008, laments the treatment of immigrants in Spain, charging that the country does not respect immigrant rights:
“Reports of human rights violations by law enforcement officers and subsequent impunity continued to be widespread. Asylum-seekers and migrants were denied access to Spanish territory and processed in extra-territorial centres in conditions that did not comply with international standards. Unaccompanied minors were expelled without adequate guarantees for their safety. Victims of domestic violence continued to face obstacles in obtaining protection, justice and reparation, with migrant women facing additional difficulties in accessing essential resources.”
Among other examples, the report highlights the use of restraining belts in the transfer of immigrants, some of whom have died from asphyxiation. The report also condemns the high levels of domestic violence in Spain, noting that 71 women died at the hands of their partners here last year, and that 48 of the victims were foreigners.
The Politics of Immigration in Spain
Apart from the strategic threat that Italy’s immigration crackdown poses to the post-nationalist multicultural vision that Spanish Socialists have for Europe, there are two more practical (and inter-related) reasons why the Socialist Party has latched onto the immigration issue: Domestic politics and fear that the immigrants expelled from Italy will come to Spain instead.
During the recent general election campaign in Spain, survey after survey showed that Spanish voters perceived the center-right Popular Party to be far better equipped than the Socialist Party to tackle the issues of immigration and crime. The PP, for example, called for immigrants to sign an “integration contract” that would obligate them to learn the Spanish language and observe the basic norms of Spanish society. This idea resonated with many Spanish voters from across the political spectrum. They worry about the long-term effects on their country of the growing numbers of immigrants who are happy to draw on the financial largesse of the social welfare state, but otherwise refuse to integrate into Spain in any meaningful way.
As a result, the Socialists are now trying to make these issues their own. But they are doing so by reframing the question of immigration through the use of post-modern word games that give the appearance that they have a more benevolent approach. For example, while Italy wants to “deport” its illegal immigrants (bad), Spain is far more humane because it wants to “voluntarily return” them instead (good). And anyone who even dares to suggest that Spain has an immigration problem is branded as “xenophobic”.
Italy’s new immigration measures, drafted by Interior Minister Roberto Maroni of the anti-immigration Northern League, include a stipulation that immigrants must secure and maintain a minimum wage and a decent level of accommodation or else they will be sent back to their country of origin “for reasons of public security.” Most Italians (as well as most Spaniards) would probably find that to be a reasonable quid pro quo.
Indeed, Franco Frattini, the Italian foreign minister, reminded Zapatero that Spain has itself been “very tough” on immigrants and implied that Madrid’s policies have even served as a template for Rome’s new thinking.
But Spanish Socialists are worried about the fallout from Italian policies. More than anything else, they fear that Italy’s tough new policies will divert migratory flows towards Spain. Instead of saying so, they couch their concerns in the language of European solidarity by arguing that Italy’s new approach to immigration “does not contribute to a common European policy.” Moreover, European Affairs Secretary of State Diego López Garrido says that Italy should have discussed its plans with its European partners.
Immigration Reality in Spain
For any regular observer of Spanish politics, López Garrido’s comments are sheer chutzpah. Up until early 2005, half of all immigrants in Spain were undocumented, a problem that Zapatero decided to “fix” by granting the largest blanket amnesty in Spanish history to nearly one million of them. This unilateral action earned Zapatero (who never misses an opportunity to preach about the merits of multilateralism) the lasting enmity of most of the major countries in Europe.
In the words of French President Nicolas Sarkozy: “We see the damage caused by the phenomenon of massive regularization. Every country which has conducted an operation of massive regularization finds itself the next month [in a position that] does not allow it to master the situation anymore.” (At the time, Zapatero advised Sarkozy not to “lecture him” about immigration, although the Spanish prime minister enjoys lecturing others on the same issue.)
And so it is. By rewarding illegal immigrants with Spanish (and thus European) documentation, Zapatero has unleashed what is known as the “call effect” to people as far away as Kashmir who now believe that Spain is an easy gateway into Europe.
But while the politically correct prime minister regularly boasts that his “humane” approach to immigration has added a multitude of new contributors to Spain’s financially unsustainable social security system, he has been less willing to acknowledge that his leniency has triggered an avalanche of uncontrolled immigration.
By any measure, Spain is a powerful magnet for immigration: During the past ten years, the number of immigrants (both legal and illegal) in Spain has skyrocketed ten-fold to 5.5 million; immigrants now make up a whopping ten percent of the total population of Spain (up to 15 percent in Barcelona), a country that for much of the last century was an exporter rather than an importer of immigrants.
But official statistics confirm that today (just three years after Zapatero’s amnesty) there are now more than one million new illegal immigrants in Spain. And according to a recent report [pdf] by the National Statistics Institute (NIE), more than 80 percent of those immigrants in Spain whose wives and children remain in their countries of origin want to bring them to Spain. Demographers calculate that this will add another 650.000 immigrants (all under the age of 16) to Spain within the next several years.
According to the latest data from the Ministry of Labor and Immigration, at the end of March 2008 there were 4,192,835 legal immigrants in Spain.
The top ten (documented) immigrant nationalities in Spain as of March 2008:
1. Moroccans - 675.906
2. Romanians - 664.880
3. Ecuadorians - 413.642
4. Colombians - 264.549
5. British - 206.168
6. Bulgarians - 136.504
7. Italians - 130.905
8. Chinese - 126.057
9. Peruvians - 123.161
10. Portuguese - 109.576
The problem for Spain is that most if its immigrants were drawn by a fast-growing economy that was based on a boom in real estate. But the construction bubble has burst and the economy is in a tailspin, especially in the construction sector that employs large numbers of immigrants. Analysts predict that economic growth will drop from 3.8 percent growth in 2007 to only 1.6 percent to 2.1 percent in 2008, and 0.7 percent to 2.0 percent in 2009. Meanwhile, unemployment is expected to reach 10 percent by the end of 2009 from 8.6 percent at the end of last year.
A slowing economy will test the tolerance Spaniards have for its immigrant population. Although racism (especially against Moroccan Arabs and Romanian Roma, but also against the native Spanish gypsies who are known as gitanos) is as prevalent in Spain as it is anywhere else in Europe, most Spaniards vehemently deny there is a problem.
This self-perception was dented in February 2008 when Spaniards hurled racist abuse against Lewis Hamilton, the British race car driver, at a Barcelona racetrack. The Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA), Formula One’s governing body, threatened Spain with the loss of its Formula One Grand Prix races, saying it was “surprised and disappointed” at the abuse suffered by Hamilton. (Interesting insights can be gleaned from the comments by Spaniards to an article in the London Times.)
And in 2004, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) fined the Spanish national football team after Spanish fans made monkey noises at black players in the England team. The event came after the Spanish coach, Luis Aragonés, called France player Thierry Henry a “black shit”. He denied that his choice of words was racist and he refused to apologize.
The European Commission against Racism and Intolerance says in a report that Spanish authorities are in denial about the problem of racism in Spain. It charged the Zapatero government with “cowardice” in tackling the issue.
When asked in late April about rising unemployment and Spain’s immigrant population, Zapatero told the public television channel TVE that “many of them will perhaps decide to return to their countries.”
So far, Zapatero and his cabinet are locked (smugly) in a state of denial, willfully blinded to the fact that immigration in Spain is spiraling out of control. (The former Minister for Labor and Immigration, Jesús Caldera, says that runaway immigration simply proves that Spain is “the envy of Europe.”) Much easier, it seems, for Zapatero to lecture other countries than to acknowledge his own shortcomings.
Soeren Kern is Senior Analyst for Transatlantic Relations at the Madrid-based Grupo de Estudios Estratégicos / Strategic Studies Group.