BRUSSELS – European Union justice and interior ministers meeting today face the tough task of setting the stage for EU leaders to take action against illegal immigration at a summit in Spain next week. Alarmed by public support for populist anti-immigration parties, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Spain’s Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar have pledged that the June 21-22 summit will provide concrete solutions to illegal immigration. European Commission President Romano Prodi said yesterday that while the 15-nation bloc had to respond to public concerns, EU governments should take care not to undermine the Union’s democratic principles and retreat into nationalism. «Recent political signals we have received are very clear. We cannot allow the question of security to take a back seat. Nor can we go back and retrench on nationalistic positions. This is not going to help us rise to the transnational challenges,» he told the European Parliament in Strasbourg. Human rights campaigners such as Amnesty International have urged the EU not to deny genuine refugees the right to asylum and protection, and said politicians’ anti-immigration rhetoric could fuel hostility to legal immigrants. Prodi said he expected EU leaders to ask interior ministers to set up what diplomats called an «embryonic EU border guard» to help tighten controls at the bloc’s external borders. «We must first of all reinforce external border controls… I expect the (summit) to convene those responsible for frontier police to decide what actions and instruments are necessary,» he said. EU diplomats expected Britain and Spain to lead interior ministers’ discussions today, which would focus on ways of setting up joint border patrols, training programs for border guards, better information-sharing on people smugglers and strengthening border controls where the need is most urgent. But they said EU states were split over how far to go in joint reinforcement of the bloc’s external borders, an issue linked closely to national sovereignty. There has been no consensus on previous proposals in this area. «Clearly the political decision at the end of the day will be taken at Seville,» one diplomat said. Most EU governments during the mid-1970s economic crisis introduced so-called «zero immigration» policies to curb migration after three decades of recruiting workers from abroad, many from former colonies. Since then, the main routes for legal migration into the wealthy Western bloc has been through the asylum systems, family reunions or marriage. Net immigration into the bloc – whose total population is 375 million – in 2000, the most recent year for figures available, was some 680,000 people. The number of refugees seeking asylum in the EU has dropped to 384,530 in 2001 from 675,460 in 1992, according to Amnesty International. But recent crackdowns on illegal immigration at European airports and container terminals have revealed a rise in the influx of clandestine migrants. In April and May more than 40 people were arrested for people smuggling and some 600 illegal migrants intercepted in EU-wide operations.