, ,

Belated EU unity has been found on sanctions against Colonel Muammar Gaddafi and his family, the EU has earmarked ten million euros in humanitarian aid to refugees stranded on Libya’s borders with Tunisia and Egypt while Britain and France are creating an air and sea bridge to take some of the Egyptian refugees back to their homes.

Europe now also needs a new strategy to deal with the influx of North African refugees arriving on its shores. This is not the moment for hand-wringing over the large number of new arrivals, irresponsible talk of an “invasion” from the south or laments over the failure of multiculturalism in Europe. Urgent and intelligent measures are needed to help southern European countries provide better treatment to the new arrivals. This means more EU assistance for Italy and other southern European states and a quick agreement on a share-out of the refugees.

The EU’s humanitarian operations are laudable but Europe has acquired an unfavourable reputation worldwide for the cold welcome it extends to many foreigners. Strict Schengen visa requirements hit foreign business leaders, students and artists. This is a chance to prove that “Fortress Europe” can open its doors to those in trouble. It is also about being a good neighbour.

Clearly, the Italian government – and others like Malta, Greece and Spain – cannot be left alone to deal with the problem. Italy’s Interior Minister Roberto Maroni says his country could soon find itself “on its knees” if the refugee “invasion” continues. He has asked for a solidarity fund to assist countries that are the first to absorb the influx of refugees. However, not for the first time, EU states are divided.

Meanwhile, Mustapha Nabli, Tunisia’s newly appointed central bank governor, says that instead of crumbling under pressure, Europe could in fact benefit from the wave of new workers. “So it is a positive sum game, it is not a negative sum game,” he says.

It’s a point worth making – but one that is unlikely to find an echo in today’s Europe. In remarks that have reverberated across the world, British Prime Minister David Cameron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Sarkozy have said Europe’s experience in building a multicultural society has been a failure.

The three EU leaders are right to question the bloc’s patchy history of integration. But they make no constructive suggestions to improve the situation. And they put the onus on immigrants to melt in or get out. However, European governments have not done enough to embrace and promote diversity, enforce anti-discrimination legislation and create a more inclusive labour market.

The reality of multicultural Europe is less gloomy than Merkel and others claim. True, some young Muslims fall prey to radical ideologies while others demand special privileges, including the establishment of faith-based schools, permission to wear the burka and segregation by gender at public swimming pools and hospitals. Tribal customs prevail in some communities.

However, across Europe, Muslims and other minorities are becoming more active in demanding rights, organizing themselves into pressure groups, and emerging as influential politicians, entrepreneurs and cultural and sports icons. This new generation of European Muslims believes it important to focus on citizenship and integration rather than on religious identity alone.

The irony is that while politicians fret about immigration and foreigners, low fertility rates and an ageing population mean that Europe needs young foreign workers to fill labor shortages in both the skilled and unskilled sectors of the economy and to fund Europe’s creaking pension and health care systems.

It’s easy to consider tough new frontier controls, repatriation schemes and other measures to keep out North Africa’s refugees. But EU policymakers should also focus on job-generating investments in the region, come up with a more intelligent common immigration policy and possibly seek changes to the Dublin Convention to ease current pressure on first-arrival border states.

EU leaders speak loudly and often about projecting European values of democracy and human rights. It’s worth remembering the people of North Africa are voicing these very aspirations.