Europe and immigration
When the French and Italian leaders meet today their conversation will be dominated by the subject of immigration. The arrival of 26,000 Tunisian migrants on the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa has strained relations between the two countries. For most of the young men want to move to France, where they have contacts and relatives.
On one level this can be seen as a practical question over how to handle what are principally economic migrants. But on another level this crisis goes to the core of what the EU is about and whether some of its fundamental principles are in touch with the mood of the people.
The migrants from Tunisia have arrived in Europe at a time of economic insecurity. In Italy youth unemployment is running at 25%. Across the EU, 24 million are without work and so far, with the exception of a few countries like Germany, it has proved a jobless recovery.
From the start the Italian government set out to make this a European problem. One of the parties in the governing coalition, the Northern League, is fiercely anti-immigration. So the Italian government issued the migrants with temporary visas, knowing only too well that with no border checks a majority of them would head to France. The Schengen agreement, signed in 1985, created open borders among 25 countries. The UK and Republic of Ireland did not sign.
The French saw the Italian move as cynical. They responded by stepping up border patrols and briefly stopped trains running between the two countries. The Italians were outraged. They accused France of violating one of the basic EU agreements. Then on 22 April the Elysee Palace hinted at a "suspension" of the Schengen agreement. Later that was qualified to mean reviewing some of the exemption clauses. The French say Europe is not about the free movement of illegal migrants.
All of this has led to fierce arguments. In France, Harlem Desir of the Socialist Party said "Sarkozy and Berlusconi make Europe ashamed. They are behaving in an absolutely unworthy fashion. France should, on the contrary, be at the forefront of a co-ordinated European response. It would be a fatal error to abandon the common Schengen policy."
The mere hint that the Schengen agreement might be suspended sent shockwaves through the European establishment. For it was not just France that did not want to take the migrants. Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands were all complaining about the Italian action.
In Brussels the Schengen agreement is regarded as one of the cornerstones of the European project. The euro is the other. All of this touches a raw nerve. The EU Commission hurriedly said that Schengen can't be suspended "temporarily" although it did give some support to the French action. With the euro crisis far from settled and with bail-outs increasingly unpopular it has led some like Markus Ferber, an MEP for the conservative German CSU, to say that solidarity among European countries is waning.
The Italian tactic has been to make this an EU crisis. The Italian Foreign Minister, Franco Frattini, said that Schengen "which is one of the two pillars of Europe along with the euro" cannot be questioned. The Italian strategy is to present this as a challenge to EU basic principles and, like with the euro, to force countries to construct a European solution.
Italian and French security officials have met in Milan. They agreed on joint sea and air patrols in the Mediterranean - but that is the easy part. The real question is what to do with the migrants. In the long term Europe may be able to use financial incentives to get the Tunisians to patrol their borders. But that is down the road.
Already about 400 of the migrants have reached Paris and reports suggest that dozens are arriving each day in the suburb of Seine-Saint-Denis.
The French and Italian leaders are each under pressure. They may agree on a joint appeal to review Schengen, to clarify how the agreement applies to the movement of significant numbers of people. But their interests differ. The Italians want the review to get others to "burden-share" ; the French want to keep the migrants out.
The real tension here is that EU principles are increasingly seen as at odds with economic reality and the wishes of a majority of the people. Appeals to solidarity do not sit well with the voters. The dilemma is similar to that of the bail-outs. In order to keep the euro together Brussels is supporting policies that alienate many voters.