Italy has warned that people living on the Mediterranean in "front-line" locations such as Sicily consider it a major problem and, if ignored by Brussels, could protest by abstaining from the weekend's election for the European Parliament.
"The European Union must understand this, or people in these areas will not vote in the European elections," Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said on a recent campaign visit to Naples.
Outside a few countries including Italy, Malta and the Netherlands, immigration has fallen off voters' radar since the last European vote in 2004, either because immigration rules have been toughened up or the focus is now on economic crisis.
One EU-wide poll suggested it is twice as important an issue for Italians as the rest of Europe, with 69 percent of Italians rating it top priority compared to an EU average of 31 percent.
In the 27-nation bloc's largest member, Germany, the focus of European and federal elections is the economic crisis, said Klaus-Peter Schoeppner of pollsters Emnid.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy's expulsions programme has led Jean-Marie Le Pen to complain that Sarkozy "has taken over the vocabulary and the doctrines of the National Front".
Spain's centre-left government, once the author of mass regularisation of illegal immigrants, is now encouraging them to leave by offering them Spanish welfare benefits back home.
In Britain, nationalist parties are expected to make headway in the European vote - but more because of low turnout and protest votes against sleaze in British politics.
In the Netherlands, right-winger Geert Wilders hopes his anti-Islamic rhetoric will win his Freedom Party a presence in the European assembly where it could campaign against Turkish EU membership talks like Belgium's far-right Vlaams Belang party.
The 'send them home' vote
But in Italy illegal immigration is a central campaign issue for Silvio Berlusconi's centre-right government, even though it has taken plenty of tough action already, such as making illegal immigration a crime and turning back would-be immigrants at sea.
Italy argues that it is taking firm action on behalf of the entire EU, including countries far from the Mediterranean, which would be the ultimate destination of many illegal immigrants.
"This does not just concern Sicilians or the Maltese but the whole EU, just like security or energy policy," said Frattini.
The government receives lots of criticism from the European Parliament, United Nations, human rights groups and Italy's own centre-left opposition - accused by Berlusconi of operating an "open door" policy during its brief spell in power a year ago.
"What is unbearable is that they portray all immigrants as the people committing crimes in our neighbouroods," said Dario Franceschini, lead of the opposition Democratic Party.
But he is lagging way behind in polls, while Berlusconi's popularity appears to be surviving both the worst recession in post-war Italy and a scandal surrounding his private life.
A large deficit means Berlusconi has limited room to respond to the recession, but appeasing a public perception that illegal immigrants carry out crime is, in contrast, cheap and popular.
Pierangelo Isernia of Siena University, who coordinated an EU poll on voter priorities, said "deeper analysis shows the percentage of Italians with more radical positions, of the 'send them all home' type, is also higher than the EU average".
Berlusconi competes for some of these votes with his allies in the anti-immigrant Northern League, which runs the interior ministry and takes credit for the crackdown in immigration.
The League could double its vote in the European vote to nine or 10 percent and, in regional elections this weekend, possibly take key regions like Lombardy or the Veneto from Berlusconi.
The premier, having boasted his People of Freedom party will surpass bullish opinion polls and take 45 percent, must avoid a disappointing result and cannot be seen losing to the League.
(EurActiv with Reuters.)