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A tougher Zapatero on illegal immigration.

Byline: James Badcock

Summary: As immigrant boat tragedy returns to Spain's coasts, Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero is busy steering the policies of his Socialist government in a new direction on the influx of illegal migrants into the country.aThe second week of July saw some 45 Africans from three crews perish at sea off the coast of Andalusia and the Canary Islands.

As immigrant boat tragedy returns to Spain's coasts, Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero is busy steering the policies of his Socialist government in a new direction on the influx of illegal migrants into the country.aThe second week of July saw some 45 Africans from three crews perish at sea off the coast of Andalusia and the Canary Islands, including nine small children, the bodies of whom the survivors of one expedition threw overboard during an ill-starred crossing from northern Morocco. But in recent days, Zapatero, who during his first term as Spain's leader had stood out on the European scene for his dogged insistence on maintaining a humane approach to the phenomenon of illegal immigration, has hardened his stance in line with European Union colleagues who fear losing support with their electorates by looking soft as the effects of global economic stagnation kick in.

Immediately after securing a second term in Spain's March elections, Zapatero made an eloquent statement by naming Celestino Corbacho as labor and immigration minister. Corbacho had previously been mayor of a Barcelona suburb with a high immigrant population, and was an outspoken critic of the idea that laws should be tailored to meet the needs of the "last one in." With this year's sudden decline of Spain's decade-long economic boom - fueled in large measure by massive construction using cheap foreign labor, causing average salaries to drop as GDP soared - the Socialist government took steps to avert a social spending deficit as immigrants swelled the unemployment figures. Those eligible for unemployment benefit, including some of the 700,000 foreign workers who had been made legal contributors to the social security system during the three-month amnesty for illegal immigrants and their employers in 2005, were offered lump sum benefit payments - half before leaving, and the rest on arrival in their home countries - as an incentive to flee a deteriorating economic situation.

This could be considered a logical, and fair, reaction. After all, the government was not forcing anyone to go home, but merely clearing the way for the immigrants wishing to return home in better financial shape than when they set out for Spain's once-buoyant job market. But on the European stage, Zapatero's support for the European Commission's Returns Directive was to cause controversy and dissent within his own ranks. Several high-profile Spanish members of the European Parliament from the Socialist bloc voted against legislation which allows EU member states to lock up undocumented migrants for up to 18 months in exceptional cases (otherwise the limit is set at six months), without the need for a judicial order.

While Zapatero desperately tried to claim that the directive was a "progressive move", arguing that several states previously had no time limit on internment for migrants, an editorial in Madrid's left-leaning daily El Pais talked about a "rightward shift" in government policy and even accused the Socialists of "opportunism."

Meanwhile, French President Nicolas Sarkozy had been negotiating with Spain over the terms of a proposed "European immigration pact" in preparation for France's six-month spell as EU president. On the one hand it is noteworthy that Sarkozy wished to accord the terms of the pact with a political animal of very different stripes than his own in Zapatero, in order to give the initiative greater credibility than it would otherwise have had. On the other, Spain's Socialists had to fight tooth and nail to the eleventh hour before the pact was presented to European interior and justice ministers in Cannes on July 7 to avoid an ugly disavowal of their own immigration policies to date.

In terms of media headlines, it was imperative for Spain to prevent the proposed "integration contract" making it into the final document, with its populist suggestion that immigrants formally agree to learning the language of the host country and to adopting a new "national identity" and "European values." This scheme led to a falling out between cosponsors France and Spain, when it emerged that Sarkozy had shown the text to Zapatero's political opponent, Mariano Rajoy of Spain's Popular Party, who had then touted a carbon copy of the "contract" as part of his platform prior to the March 9 elections. Spain succeeded in binning the proposal, which mentioned only in general terms the responsibilities on the part of authorities to help immigrants form part of their new society, while stressing the new arrivals' duty to respect the laws and values of their new country of residence.

Sarkozy's initial proposal also aimed to effectively outlaw mass legalizations of immigrants, which, it said, "produce a notable pull effect." That clause, too, was altered to suit the tastes of the Spanish - who had no wish to make an apparent apology for the 2005 amnesty - so that the final document fudges on legalization. It says that this should be carried out on a "case-by-case" basis, in which humanitarian and economic factors can play a part.

Spain, satisfied with this formulation, says this is precisely what its mass amnesty was: immigrants were assessed individually and had to provide proof that they had work contracts and a clean criminal record in their home countries. Interior Minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba declared that Spain's immigration model had "finally imposed itself" on the French blueprint, but there is no question that the emphasis in terms of immigration policy in the Socialists' second term has switched to control. In the words of Rubalcaba, Spain has joined the rest of Europe in the message: "Don't risk your life crossing the Atlantic because you will have to return; you can neither enter nor live illegally in the European Union."

Zapatero's party convention recently voted to allow immigrants from outside the EU the right to vote in local elections. This seems a decent policy, but one can't help wondering if the Socialists have rid themselves of a potentially sizeable electoral boost, now that the Spanish government has crossed the fence into the majority camp when it comes to European immigration policy.

James Badcock is deputy editor of the English-language edition of El-Pais in Madrid. He writes frequently on Spanish and North African affairs for THE DAILY STAR.

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Publication:The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon)
Geographic Code:4EUSP
Date:Jul 21, 2008
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