WASHINGTON -- While the chaos on the northern coast of Africa has been a historic revolution for the peoples of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and others, it has had quite a different effect on Europe. For this is where the North African nations are sending and dumping their "extra" people, and it is not going well as Europe struggles with this new reality.
From the moment the revolutions began more than a month ago, refugees from the warring nations of North Africa have piled on boats to Lampedusa, an island off of Italy, and crossed into Spain and France. We were seeing a mammoth series of breakdowns in national borders. European papers used headlines such as "Migrants Emerge as New Front in War" and "Denmark's Border Plan Angers Its EU Partners" and "EU Considers New Border Checks."
But what was really happening was that the Schengen agreement opening borders in Europe, signed in 1985 by a few European countries and now expanded to 22 EU nations, plus Norway, Switzerland, Liechtenstein and Iceland (the U.K., Ireland, Cyprus, Bulgaria and Romania still maintain border restrictions), was being questioned on all levels.
Several weeks ago, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi sent a letter to European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso asking the EU to "examine the possibility of temporarily restoring internal border controls in the event of exceptional difficulties in managing the common external borders, under conditions to be defined."
It was a complex way of saying what one English leader said simply when he stated that "England is filled up."
What it would mean is the revocation of one of the major tenets of European Unity -- that continental Europe would have no internal borders (say, between France and Germany, or Austria and Italy), and that citizens of all the EU member states could move easily and naturally through the continent.
Farther north, Denmark has threatened to revive procedures to prevent the smuggling of drugs and weapons, which could restart border checks and thus violate European Union laws. Denmark's plan, wrote Barroso, appears "to put into question the smooth functioning of Europe's single market" and may violate EU laws on the "free movement of goods, persons, services and capital and the provisions" of the borders code.
"I'm worried that borders might be brought back," said Thorbjorn Jagland, secretary-general of the Council of Europe, the continent's principal human rights organization. "This could be a very bad thing for Europe."
Guido Westerwelle, the German foreign minister, warned some of his European counterparts, "It is far more than just a German-Danish question. It is a question of the freedom of European citizens."
But Europeans are asking, How can we incorporate such numbers into our nations without giving up ourselves in the new ethnic cultural mix? Europeans are hesitating to allow, in particular, Muslim refugees who, in their experience to date, have shown they do not want to assimilate, but who want to impose their religion, culture and even names on others. The masses of North African refugees have awakened every possible fear on the part of Europeans.
Indeed, Antonio Guterres, the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, has thrown into the discussion the dangerous idea that the Gadhafi regime might be forcing out migrants to create problems within Europe. L'Unita, the left-wing Italian daily newspaper, has been reporting the same story.
This is, of course, true not only of Europe. The same process is occurring in the U.S. and, indeed, wherever a wealthy industrialized country comes up against a poor and untrained people.
The Europeans thought they had the answer with the EU and open borders, with the Schengen agreement and with good will. But in this chaotic time, members of the EU have to figure out how to maintain a balance between relatively open policies and controlled borders in order to stay who and what they are.