22nd Oct 2020

Berlusconi and Sarkozy to seek tightening of EU border controls

  • Migrants waiting on the Italian island of Lampedusa (Photo: Valentina Pop)

The leaders of France and Italy are meeting in Rome today (26 April) to discuss measures to tighten EU border controls amid rising tensions over how to deal with the thousands of migrants fleeing revolutions in north Africa.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his Italian counterpart Silvio Berlusconi are expected to use this 29th bilateral summit to call for a partial reintroduction of border controls, a move that would undermine one of the most significant integration steps of the European Union.

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"Europe is not the free movement of illegal immigrants," Laurent Wauquiez, French European affairs minister told Journal du Dimanche.

"France wants to study the possibility of restoring border controls if there is a major influx at the gates of the Union," he said.

Referring to the EU's agreement on abolishing internal borders, Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini told daily Il Sole 24 Ore: "All treaties inevitably grow old. The Berlin wall of North Africa has come down and the context in which these treaties and I think also the Lisbon treaty, were written has changed radically."

The Franco-Italian meeting comes as the influx of some 25,000 Africans over recent weeks has exposed the fragility of Europe's approach to dealing with immigration. Italy, as the landing country for the vast majority of the immigrants, has complained bitterly about the what it is says is a lack of solidarity in dealing with the migrants from the rest of the EU.

With its complaints falling on deaf ears, it then infuriated fellow member states - particularly France - by granting Tunisians six-month resident permits allowing them to travel freely within the countries belonging to the Schengen Zone.

Many Tunisians, often French-speakers, started to make their way to France, prompting Paris to search trains coming from Italy. Under EU rules, residency permits - Italy has so far granted around 8000 - can only be granted if the person has the means to support themselves.

Although France has said it does not want to "suspend" the Schengen Agreement but just "review" it, the mere fact that it is being discussed at all is of significant symbolic importance.

The 1995 agreement, allowing passport-free travel in 25 European countries and affecting 400 millions citizens, is seen as one of the deepest integration moves in the EU's history, breaking the down national borders and resting on trust between member states.

However, the highly visible migration from Africa in recent weeks - where migrants often reach the tiny and ill-equipped Italian island of Lampedusa first - has seen member states defend the domestic line rather than one of EU solidarity.

It also comes amid internal political pressure as national politicians take a hard line on immigration, taking on board some of the policies of rising populist and anti-immigration parties.

Sarkozy himself, facing election next year, is under pressure from an increasingly popular far-right National Front party while Berlusconi's government is dependent on the strongly anti-immigrant Lega Nord.

Any Franco-Italian agreement reached on Tuesday would have to be agreed by the rest of the EU, with interior ministers meeting on 12 May to discuss immigration.

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