An estimated 25,000 North African migrants have landed in Italy this year following the popular upheavals and strife in countries along the southern Mediterranean, notably Tunisia and Libya. Italy's decision to hand temporary visas to many of the immigrants, allowing them to travel within the EU, and notably to France, led to a fierce dispute between Paris and Rome. It appeared settled this week after a meeting between French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi who have now jointly called for restrictive modifications to be made to the Schengen Agreement, a treaty that allows passport-free movement among many EU countries and which represents one of the Union's founding principles. Carine Fouteau reports on why such a move is unnecessary and more of a nod to domestic electoral considerations than a considered response to a growing humanitarian crisis. .
During the press conference that followed their meeting in Rome on April 26th, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi discussed the military intervention in Libya, the replacement for outgoing president of the European Central Bank Jean-Claude Trichet and business matters. But, above all, the main subject on the agenda was their call for a reform of Europe's open-border Schengen Agreement.
Sarkozy and Berlusconi expressed their concerns over "a flux" of migration to Europe from North African countries which this year became the scene of popular uprisings, notably Tunisia and Libya. In a joint text released Tuesday, the two leaders called on European Commission President José Manuel Barroso and European Council President Herman Van Rompuy "to examine the possibility of temporarily re-establishing controls within [Schengen zone] borders in the case of exceptional difficulties." They added that they intended to put the issue up for debate at the next European leaders' summit in June.
The French president, more outspoken on the subject than Berlusconi, initially described their call as an attempt "to reinforce" the treaty. He went on to add: "But who manages Schengen? Interior ministers? Well, let them truly manage it."
"We have the euro, we have reformed the European economy. We would like to see the same thing done to Schengen," he said.
An estimated 25,000 migrants from North Africa, mostly Tunisians, have landed in southern Italy so far this year, the majority on the island of Lampedusa, some 113 kilometres from the Tunisian coastline. In a move to spread the migration elsewhere, the Italian authorities recently supplied those who arrived between January 1st and April 5th with temporary, six-month residency permits, therefore allowing them to travel in most of the EU member countries, and notably France, where many have family and relations.
Before Tuesday's press conference, which followed weeks of dispute over the issue between Paris and Rome, the French government had said the situation required a "safeguard" to be added to the open-border treaty in order to allow occasional periods when full border controls could be re-established. Recently increased policing of areas around France's south-eastern border with Italy, in an effort to identify and turn back immigrants, were denounced by migrant support associations ANAFE and GISTI as "manifestly discriminating" and in violation of French and European law.
Hundreds of Tunisian migrants have nevertheless succeeded in reaching Paris, where some have been welcomed by relatives, while others have settled in precarious conditions in public parks or wasteland beside the capital's ring-road.