Social and political problems are becoming ever more European rather than just Italian. The flow of immigrants into Italy began more than 20 years ago but only in the last few years have governments begun to think of it first of all as a problem and secondly as one to be faced at European level. The bill before the Italian parliament is an attempt to deal with immigration at both levels.

Unless there are major changes in the senate, the bill will toughen regulations dealing with non-EU foreigners resident in the country. First of all, permits of stay will depend on having a contract to work here; the time needed to change the permit of stay into a carta di soggiorno, which lasts indefinitely, will be raised from five to six years, and it will be more difficult for immigrants relatives to come to Italy. The most controversial article orders the fingerprinting of all non-EU foreigners who request or renew a permit. The governments intention is to transfer the prints to an electronic database, and for the moment at least there is no proposal to fingerprint EU residents or Italian nationals.

Obviously there is no difference in treatment between the rich (and usually white) extracomunitari and the poor ones from developing nations. There are almost 48,000 US citizens in Italy, 17,625 Swiss, 7,014 Japanese and 1,038 Norwegians, and some of them have already complained at the discriminatory nature of the measure. You take the fingerprints of potential criminals, said one American, or otherwise you take everyones.

At the root of the question are two conflicting issues. On one side, Italy (and most of the rest of Europe) has a need for labour, both qualified and manual. Italy needs workers to work now and to contribute to pensions over the next 20 to 30 years, and there are not enough Italians who are prepared to do the work. Despite high youth unemployment in the south, there are areas of the north where employers are desperate and complain that the government quota is not high enough. So immigrants have become a necessity.

There are almost 1.4 million legal immigrants in the country (with 220,000 in Lazio, 90 per cent in Rome) and perhaps half a million illegals. They come from north Africa and the Balkans and also from sub-Saharan Africa and the Italian ex-colonies. Many have become well integrated and have children who are Italians. It was a powerful symbol of the changing face (literally) of Italy when the standard bearer for the Italian squad at the Olympic games in Sydney in 2000 was black, a Romagnolo of Jamaican origin.

On the other side are the worries about the other; immigrants are perceived as a risk. Two of the parties of the present government coalition, Gianfranco Finis Alleanza Nazionale and Umberto Bossis Lega Nord, made immigration control an explicit part of their election manifesto and the present bill carries the two mens signatures. Neither man is explicitly racist and they are careful to avoid language which would leave them open to accusations of racism, but they are voicing the fears of large numbers of Italians.

The results of the French presidential elections and the Dutch parliamentary elections this year showed how the issue is a European one. Two years ago, Jrg Haiders Freedom Party in Austria had already put immigration high on the agenda, and in early June European Commission president Romano Prodi appealed to EU governments to tackle the issue of illegal immigration at the Seville summit.

The issues of both legal and illegal immigration have been around for some time now. Cardinal Biffi of Bologna has made various appeals over the last two years to the government to encourage Catholic immigration (today there are 407,500 Catholics, 328,850 other Christians and 543,850 Muslims). At the time he was criticised by liberal and religious commentators, but since 11 September the diffidence towards Muslims has grown and last month political commentator and journalist Giovanni Sartori suggested that a reasoned caution (rather than blind prejudice) towards foreigners is nothing to be ashamed of. Sartori writes as a liberal.

For almost 20 years, there has been almost no discussion about the consequences of an influx of immigrants; now Italians are beginning to face the issues. The bill before parliament is, as Ilvo Diamanti pointed out in the Italian national daily La Repubblica, largely window dressing, a commercial to reassure public opinion. The real problem is finding qualified and suitable labour. The 2000 quota for immigrants was 63,000, which employers considered insufficient, but at the same time they and the government do not think immigration is a solution to their problems. Treasury minister Giulio Tremonti says that immigrants will not fill the cradles and straighten the pensions curve. At best they can make a significant contribution but it wont be decisive, while the president of the industrialists association Confindustria, Antonio DAmato, maintains: We cant open up to immigration as if it were a social Viagra which will make us young again.

That is the employers problem. For the rest of Italy, there is the long-term question of how to deal with the second generation of immigrants; these are Italians just as much as Arabs in Marseilles are French and Asians in Oldham are British. That will not be dealt with by todays bill.