Here’s the big view of what’s happening in Europe. A long period of economic growth with low inflation sustained by large inflows of migrants is giving way to a painful recession in which foreigners are increasingly resented as rivals for jobs and scapegoated as the cause of social ills.

What will happen as a result of this depends on politics. History teaches that it will be hard for politicians to resist the chance to flame the resentment: scapegoating is the time-honoured means for deflecting hostility, and offers cheap political gains.

Take Italy, where the feebly authoritarian government of Silvio Berlusconi, in partnership with the xenophobic Northern League, has issued a draconian series of measures aimed at illegal immigrants, beggars and gypsies -- all under the guise of that increasingly sinister word "security". The measures include the fingerprinting of gypsy children.  

All this in response to a national wave of anxiety over levels of violent crime, which are associated in the minds of many with illegal immigration, despite there being statistically no connection whatsoever.

The voice of the Church in this new landscape  -- standing firm against the scapegoat mechanism -- is going to be increasingly important. So all praise to the Italian magazine Famiglia Cristiana, a solidly mainstream Catholic magazine which sells 600,000 through the country’s parishes each week. In June it compared the Government’s "security decree" to the herding of Jews under Mussolini.

You can see why. Berlusconi’s election campaign promised a severe clampdown on "Roma, clandestine immigrants and criminals"  -- it was one of the main reasons for his election. His coalition’s candidate for mayor of Rome pledged the expulsion of "20,000 nomads and immigrants who have broken the law" -- broken the law, that is, not by committing crimes but for being undocumented, he deliberately did not say.

Other politicians have gone further. In May, when a mob of vigilantes torched a Roma camp in Naples after the arrest of a young Gypsy woman accused of trying to abduct a child,the head of the Northern League,  Umberto Bossi, said the attack on the camp was understandable: "People are going to do what the political class cannot", was his chilling remark. When the Government encourages popular mob violence, riding the tiger of popular resentment, we are at the threshold of something very nasty indeed.

Famiglia Cristiana’s latest editorial compares the fingerprinting of Roma children in Italian Gypsy camps to the persecution of the Jews by the Nazis before and during the Second World War. "We hope that the suspicion that Fascism is being reborn in a different form proves to be untrue", it says, next to a photo of a Jew in a fascist ghetto. Beppe Del Colle, the magazine’s editor, cited a report by the French Dominican-owned journal ’Esprit’ which warned of a potential return to authoritarian rule in Italy following the government’s deployment of 3,000 troops in major cities to deter crime.

The Government are furious, accusing the magazine of cattocommunismo. The Vatican has meanwhile moved to defuse some of the tension by pointing out that Famiglia Cristiana does not speak for the Catholic bishops -- although the Vatican spokesman did say that the magazine, owned by the Paulist fathers, was "an important publication" in Italian Catholicism.

Famiglia Cristiana stands firm on abortion and other "family values" as much as it does on this issue of the scapegoating of immigrants and gypsies. To try to portray it as left-wing is a sign that the Government is touchy on the issue. Berlusconi’s coalition is anxious to be seen  -- as was Mussolini in the early days -- as siding with "Catholic" values.

Italy has been a laboratory of political movements which then spread across Europe. In the early decades of the twentieth century, it was where anarchism and communism, and later "national socialism" was born  -- the response of the lower middle-classes in alliance with the wealthy to what was perceived as social disintegration. Italy does not have "political parties" as much as coalitions of interests -- and the frustrations and anxieties of the lower middle-classes, organised in a range of powerful sindaci, have been in the past the motor of authoritarian reaction. It is they who brought Berlusconi and the Northern League into government, and it is they who are calling the shots in the current backlash.

The left is in its usual disarray, while the Christian Democrats are largely a spent force. But if the Church chooses to speak out more boldly in defence of immigrants and against the scapegoat mechanism, that could change.

One thing is certain: Italy needs observing.