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EU Plans to Beef Up Borders

Summit: Proposal to crack down on nations associated with illegal immigration is tempered. Leaders agree to coordinate policies.


SEVILLE, Spain — European leaders meeting here adopted a regional strategy Saturday to fight illegal immigration, responding to increasingly desperate border crossings and a backlash against the arrival of half a million clandestine migrants a year.

The leaders of the 15-nation European Union agreed to beef up border enforcement and coordinate policies on visas and political asylum. But they watered down a tough proposal by Spain, Italy and Britain to impose economic sanctions on nations whose authorities tolerate or participate in organized smuggling of immigrants.

"We have to act without demagoguery and with realism," said Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, who holds the rotating EU presidency. "We are all in agreement that immigration is positive, if the migratory flows are orderly and compatible with the law."

Urged on by Aznar, a pragmatic reformer who has gotten tough with terrorism and illegal immigration in this country, the leaders were confronting a problem that tops their domestic agendas. Especially since Sept. 11, politics across the continent have been reshaped by immigration, an issue that intertwines with fears of rising crime and Islamic extremism and with the difficulty of integrating Muslims into European societies. Recent elections have brought notable gains by candidates demanding border crackdowns, whether far rightists in France, populists in the Netherlands or regional partisans in northern Italy.

The dramas on the coasts of Spain and Italy--ragged refugees hurdling fences, dilapidated smuggling ships intercepted at sea, corpses washing up on beaches--resemble those on the U.S.-Mexico border and in southern Florida. And because Europe has done away with most of its internal borders, the EU states must work together with an urgency that runs counter to the union's typically slow and contentious nature.

Adding to tensions in Seville was an onset of violence by Basque separatists. As expected by Spanish police, the ETA terrorist organization used the presence of the European heads of government--and of 3,000 journalists--to launch its yearly summer campaign of mayhem aimed at tourist regions.

There were five bombings Friday and Saturday: three in beach resorts on the southern coast and one each in Zaragoza and Santander in the north. Police reported 10 casualties, all minor except for a British tourist who was in serious condition after a car bombing near a hotel in Fuengirola, about 95 miles south of Seville.

Still, Aznar, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi found consensus on the need to harmonize policies on visas and political refugees. Asylum laws now are wildly divergent: Alleged Al Qaeda terror bosses have lived in London as high-profile political refugees, while French officials grumble that these individuals would be arrested if they crossed the Channel.

The plan adopted in Seville will provide more resources for border enforcement in front-line nations and will lay the foundation for a common border police agency and Europe-wide anti-smuggling task forces. It spells out a policy for working with countries from which migrant flows originate--Albania, Morocco, Turkey, the former Yugoslav republics--to repatriate captured illegal immigrants and otherwise improve cooperation.

The most ambitious proposal on the table called for denying generous EU economic aid to countries that egregiously fail to cooperate. Albania and Morocco are classic examples of "sending" countries where corruption and lawlessness enable smuggling industries to transport migrants from Africa, the Middle East and Asia, according to Spanish and Italian officials.

Spanish officials are especially exasperated with Morocco, whose northern coast is the base for ramshackle flotillas of smuggling craft bound for the Canary Islands and the Gibraltar coast.

Moroccan leaders respond that they are doing their best, and warn that economic sanctions would worsen the poverty and unemployment that cause immigration. European critics of the anti-immigrant wave, especially in France and Sweden, say it is part of a misguided "Fortress Europe" mentality.

At the summit, France was a stubborn dissenting voice. Inspired by the country's close ties to Morocco, Algeria and other former colonies in North Africa, French opposition forced Spain, Italy and Britain to back away from the original carrot-and-stick approach.

The document approved Saturday will nonetheless set up a mechanism to conduct "a systematic evaluation of relations with third countries that do not collaborate with the fight against illegal immigration." In exceptional cases, Aznar said, the EU could predicate future economic aid on improved border enforcement.

"This debate about 'Fortress Europe' is absurd," he said. "The law is made to be obeyed."

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