April 26, 2011

France And Italy Call For Reform Of Europe's Visa-Free Travel Agreement

The Irish Times
written by Ruadhan Mac Cormaic in Paris
Wednesday, April 27, 2011

FRANCE AND Italy have called for the European Union’s Schengen agreement on visa-free travel to be reformed after a dispute between the two countries over immigration from north Africa.

President Nicolas Sarkozy and Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi held talks in Rome yesterday to defuse tensions over Italy’s decision to grant temporary residence permits to 20,000 Tunisian migrants who have arrived in Italy since the uprising in the country in January.

French authorities provoked Italy’s ire last week by blocking a train carrying about 60 Tunisians from crossing the Italy-France border, saying only those who proved they could support themselves financially would be granted entry.

“We want Schengen to survive, but to survive Schengen must be reformed,” Mr Sarkozy said yesterday. “We believe in free circulation but we believe in a state of law and a certain number of rules.”

The Schengen agreement allows for visa-free travel between 25 continental European states, including Switzerland, Norway and Iceland, although national authorities retain some discretion to deny entry to non-EU citizens.

Mr Berlusconi said neither country wished to abandon the treaty but that “in exceptional circumstances, we believe there must be changes”. Relations between France and Italy, already strained by divisions over the intervention in Libya, have been damaged by the stand-off over north African immigration. Although the European Commission said France did not breach Schengen rules by temporarily closing the border near the southeastern town of Menton, Italy lodged a formal complaint over the decision.

The dispute is set against a fraught political background in France, where the rise of the far-right Front National has made immigration a major battleground.

Mr Berlusconi has also come under domestic pressure on immigration from his coalition allies in the Northern League, who failed in their initial bid to deport Tunisian migrants who arrived by boat at the island of Lampedusa. Rome maintains it has not received enough support from European neighbours in coping with the flow of migrants from north Africa.

Officials in Paris and Rome have been working on proposals to widen a state’s right to temporarily suspend its Schengen commitments, although the Élysée Palace at the weekend backtracked on its use of the term “suspension”. “France does not want to suspend Schengen,” Mr Sarkozy’s adviser, Henri Guaino, said on Sunday, but rather to widen the clauses allowing for border controls to be reimposed “in particular circumstances”.

Mr Berlusconi said the two leaders had jointly written to European Commission president José Manuel Barroso asking him to look into possible reforms of the Schengen deal. They had also urged for “greater collaboration” between EU states on migration flows. “Southern European states should not be left alone to deal with mass immigration,” Mr Berlusconi added.

The two leaders agreed to ask the Tunisian government to co-operate more closely with them in dissuading migrants from travelling to Europe.

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