France, Italy Initiate Schengen Treaty Revision over North African Migrants
While Bulgaria and Romania are hoping to join the Schengen Agreement before the end of 2011, France and Italy have come together with a joint proposal for reforming it after their quarrel caused by the influx of North African migrants.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy met Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in Rome Tuesday with the two leaders hammering out a much anticipated rapprochement after last week's row.
France and Italy want to reform the Schengen treaty and reinforce the European Union's Frontex agency, France's President Nicolas Sarkozy said on Tuesday.
"We want Schengen to live, but for Schengen to live it must be reformed," he told reporters in Rome as cited by international media.
According to Sarkozy and Berlusconi, the Schengen Treaty, which removes border controls among the 25 European members, must be reworked to take into account "exceptional circumstances" such as massive immigration tides.
The state leaders of France and Italy, two of the EU member states carrying the most weight in the Union, said they had signed a joint letter to be sent to European Commission, the EU's executive body, to propose changes to the treaty allowing individual states to suspend temporarily the free movement of people under certain circumstances.
"We both believe that in exceptional circumstances there should be variations to the Schengen treaty on which we have decided to work together," Berlusconi said, echoing comments by Sarkozy at a joint news conference after a summit in Rome.
In Berlusconi's words, the letter he and Sarkozy are submitting to EC President Jose Manuel Barroso and EU Council President Herman Van Rompuy calls for greater cooperation and solidarity on part of all EU member states with the Mediterranean EU countries, which "cannot be left alone."
The Italian PM underscored that his country is facing the challenge of the influx of North African immigrants over the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, and the ongoing civil war in Libya. He and Sarkozy have concluded that the pressure on the borders of some EU and Schengen member states has consequences for the entire Union.
The main priority of the EU must be to reach very quickly a global agreement with the Southern Mediterranean states, the two leaders' letter to the EC says. They express hopes that the EU Council summit in June will provide political impetus to solving the problem with North African migration.
Berlusconi and Sarkozy further ask the EU to strengthen the financial solidarity mechanisms with respect to the receiving countries, and state that the EU must create a common European asylum regime including by bridging the norms of the member states.
Boosting the EU border control agency Frontex, which is based in Warsaw, is seen as being crucial since Frontex's job is to be the core of the EU border control system, according to France and Italy.
A representative of the European Commission has reacted to the French-Italian initiative for revision of the Schengen threaty by saying that suspention of free movement of people is possible only if a member state leaves the Union.
The common French-Italian initiative to revise the Schengen Agreement by restoring border control comes as a notable development after last week the two countries had a major fight once Italy decided to grant around some 25 000 Tunisian migrants temporary visas allowing them to travel within the Schengen area. This led Paris to react strongly since most of the Tunisians were known to want to join their relatives already living in France.
Thus, France last week even halted trains carrying migrants over the boarder from Italy to France. Tens-of-thousands of Tunisians and other Arab migrants have arrived on the southern Italy island of Lampedusa since January when an uprising toppled that country's authoritarian government.
Earlier this month the France and Italy agreed to joint sea and air patrols to try to stop African migrants reaching Europe.
The unrest in North Africa has triggered a huge movement of migrants to Europe. Many head first to the Italian island of Lampedusa, which lies about 120 km off the Tunisian coast.
The 1995 Schengen treaty allows legal residents of most EU countries, Switzerland, Norway and Iceland to travel across the zone without visas.
After the French-Italian Schengen row generated media reports that France might even quit the agreement, French EU Affairs Minister Laurent Wauquiez declared France does not intend to do so but wants to discuss modifications to the agreement, according to.
At present, the Schengen treaty allows its 25 member states to temporarily suspend border-free travel over "security reasons." However, Wauquiez has made it clear that France would like to have the option of restoring border control in the event of a major influx of immigrants through EU's external borders.
Before Tuesday's France-Italy summit, Italy had indicated it would consider a French initiative to modify the treaty as Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said the principle of free circulation within the EU cannot be done away with but the treaty needed a "check-up."
Bulgaria, a Schengen hopeful and the closest EU member state to the wider Middle East together with Greece and Italy has not seen a tide of illegal immigrants for the time being, unlike its neighbor Greece which has been getting help from EU border control agency Frontex.
In the past few months, France together with Germany have raised political opposition to Bulgaria and Romania's accession to the Schengen area leading the two countries to miss the original joining deadline of March 2011.
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