News Analysis: A tide of tough rhetoric, but no sign of a joined-up policy on immigration

As the crisis grows, EU ministers meet today to forge agreement on asylum
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When David Blunkett published a White Paper on immigration and citizenship in February, he expressed the hope that his plans would prevent once and for all asylum being used "as a political football and as a weapon in the armoury of the National Front and British National Party".

By yesterday, the Home Secretary's hopes had receded to a very distant horizon. He was in the middle of a political storm after speaking of the danger of the children of asylum-seekers "swamping" British schools.

The s-word has unfortunate echoes of Margaret Thatcher, who in 1978 said people were "afraid that this country might be rather swamped by people with a different culture".

The advance of Jean-Marie Le Pen in France has returned immigration to the forefront of political debate in Britain. Labour and Conservative officials fear that events in France will boost the prospects of the British National Party (BNP) in the local elections in England a week today. The BNP is receiving much more publicity for its campaigns in Burnley and Oldham, the scene of race riots last year, than it would otherwise have managed.

The National Front's success in France has also thrown into focus a Europe-wide crisis over immigration. The writing has been on the wall for some time, but politicians across Europe may finally have to read it and take notice.

Two years ago, traffic jams stretched back miles from Belgium's borders with Germany, France, the Netherlands and Luxembourg – a farcical illustration of one of the most bizarre aspects of Europe's failed immigration policy. With large numbers of sans papiers – immigrants without papers – working in Belgium illegally, the government there announced plans to "regularise" a number of them. Anxious to prevent a flood of new immigrants taking advantage of this, the government moved quickly to beef up frontier controls. So Belgian border guards were put on special duty to deter one set of illegal immigrants while their colleagues handed out papers to another.

The problem is not confined to Belgium. An estimated 1.8 million people have gained legal status in the EU via amnesties since the 1970s, according to one academic publication in Brussels. But the example is typical of the disarray in Europe's immigration procedures, which has been exploited ruthlessly by politicians of the far right.

The contrast with the United States is stark. Between 1988 and 1997, America admitted almost twice as many immigrants as the EU – about 9 million, compared with 5 million – and the hard-working new arrivals are credited with helping to foster their new country's economic miracle.

Across Europe, politicians from the far-right to the centre-left have long stressed their determination to crack down on bogus asylum-seekers, to punish those involved in human trafficking, while keeping legal immigration to a minimum. For 30 years their thinking has been dominated by the concept of "zero immigration" and the idea that Europe can be a "fortress".

In most countries, there is only one guaranteed route to earning work papers: through having a relative already there and qualifying for "family reunion" schemes.

But economic realities make the idea of cutting off the EU from the developing world unsustainable. While the gap between living standards in Europe and the Third World is as glaring as ever, the EU's need for labour has proved irresistible to people from developing countries and eastern Europe.

Yet the EU faces a demographic crisis. Between 1975 and 1995 the population of the EU grew from 349 million to 372 million people, and the proportion of those aged 65 or over increased from 13 per cent to 15.4 per cent. According to projections the working-age population will fall from 225 million in 1995 to an estimated 223 million in 2025, while the over-65s will rise to 22.4 per cent of the population in 2025.

Europol estimates that about 500,000 people enter the EU illegally each year, many finding jobs but paying no tax or social security contributions. Some eventually gain their papers, others remain in the black economy, while some will eventually return to their place of origin. Meanwhile asylum applications have exploded throughout the EU, throwing governments into disarray as they try to sift the genuine refugees from the economic migrants.

British and other European governments are beginning to acknowledge the problem and create new ways of dealing with it. That process will get a fillip today in Luxembourg when justice and home affairs ministers will try to agree minimum standards for the reception of asylum-seekers in the EU.

The European Commission wants to co-ordinate asylum laws in the EU, in some respects making them more liberal, to include new categories of people, such as women who have been forced into the sex trade, but also cracking down on abuse by preventing "asylum-shopping", whereby those claiming refugee status try to select the country in which they believe their application will be best received.EU-wide databases, with fingerprinting, would stop people who have had a request rejected in one EU country applying in another under a pseudonym.

Most controversially, the European commissioner for justice and home affairs, Antonio Vitorino, wants to adopt policies for "managed migration". Experiments are already under way in some countries, including Germany, where an American-style "green card" scheme was set up two years ago to lure information technology specialists. Other countries are more concerned to recruit unskilled workers to do low-paid jobs their nationals no longer want to do.

In Britain, Mr Blunkett's White Paper made a bold attempt to rewrite an immigration policy that has remained virtually unchanged since 1971. He also proposed a "green card" system to tackle skill shortages in Britain; an English test, citizenship exam and oath of allegiance for people wanting nationality, and a crackdown on bogus marriages.

Tony Blair's aides speak of a twin-track, "firm but fair" strategy, which is tough on racism but also tough on asylum claims by economic migrants. The Blairites argue that taking a hard line prevents the far right flourishing as it has in France. But Labour critics fear that the hard talk merely plays into the hands of the BNP.