Difficult questions

Europe's latest immigration crisis was resolved this week, with the Open Arms rescue boat docking on the Italian island of Lampedusa after twenty days at sea. Italy's public prosecutor, Luigi Patronaggio, finally overrode the country's interior minister and deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini, who had refused to accept the some 100 immigrants despite worsening conditions on board.

In accordance with his somewhat relaxed stance on immigration, Spain's acting prime minister, Pedro Sánchez had already ordered a Spanish navy boat to sail out to Open Arms and accompany it to Mallorca - a decision criticised by his right-wing adversaries for sending out the wrong message about Spain. The whole debacle demonstrates, yet again, that immigration has become one of the most contentious issues in Spanish politics.

The fiercest criticism of both Sánchez and Proactiva Open Arms - a Barcelona-based NGO whose latest missions have raised complex questions about EU immigration policies - has unsurprisingly come from Vox leader Santiago Abascal. Abascal also expressed his support for Salvini's hardline stance: a member of the populist Northern League party (in many ways Vox's Italian counterpart), Italy's deputy prime minister has repeatedly called for an eradication of illegal immigration into the country.

Like other right-wing parties throughout Europe, Vox is usually branded as "anti-immigration", a label that's not necessarily inaccurate, but one that nevertheless flattens out the nuances of its position. Vox wants greater control over the influx of legal immigrants into Spain, proposing to regulate numbers depending on the country's economic needs. It's a sensible position to adopt, especially given the recent spike in the number of arrivals on the Andalusian coast (around half of all undocumented immigrants who crossed the Mediterranean last year ended up on Spanish shores). On the other hand, Abascal sounds depressingly like Donald Trump when he talks of deporting, without exception, all illegal immigrants, or of building massive walls around the Spanish enclaves of Melilla and Ceuta in Morocco.

Sánchez's approach to the issue is perhaps too laid-back, as praiseworthy as his humanitarian efforts to aid previous Open Arms missions have been. The Socialist leader seems unwilling to ask hard questions about the extent that Spain's welfare system can cope with steadily rising immigration levels. For this reason, his plan to eradicate a minimum residency period for undocumented immigrants' access to healthcare was heavily criticised when it was announced last summer.

How to deal with immigration has become one of the EU's toughest challenges. And as the Lampedusa incident demonstrates, it's necessary to grapple with difficult questions about the levels of immigrants that European countries - especially those in the Mediterranean - can or ought to accept, rather than simply branding governments, parties or policies as "pro" or "anti" immigration. For Spain, perhaps the solution lies somewhere between the opposed stances of Abascal's Vox and Sánchez's Socialists.