A Boost for Sarkozy and Berlusconi Support Broadens for Border-Free Travel Changes

Several European countries have voiced cautious support for adjustments to Europe's Schengen border-free travel agreement. Given the ongoing influx of economic refugees from North Africa, the reintroduction of border checks should be allowed, say many. But travel freedoms, warned Germany, should not be questioned.
Tunisian immigrants gathered in a Paris park on Wednesday.

Tunisian immigrants gathered in a Paris park on Wednesday.


As waves of refugees go, the arrival of 26,000 economic immigrants from Tunisia on Europe's southern shores so far this year is hardly unprecedented. During the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the 1990s, Germany provided a temporary home to 350,000 people, and even Sweden, population 9 million, took in 53,000. In 2010 alone, Germany received 39,900 asylum requests.

But with ongoing upheaval in North Africa showing no signs of ending anytime soon, both Italy and France are growing nervous. Now, other countries have joined them in demanding adjustments to Europe's border-free travel regime, the Schengen Agreement, to allow the re-introduction of border checks under specified conditions. Germany is among them.

German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich of Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative bloc indicated on Wednesday Berlin's support for re-introducing border controls within the European Union "in extreme cases." His ministry spokesperson said the changes under discussion represented "minor adjustments" for "certain situations."

Hans-Peter Uhl, conservative parliamentary spokesman on interior affairs, likewise said that changes were necessary. "That would be the logical result of the situation which has developed in recent months," he told the Munich-based daily Süddeutsche Zeitung.

'Not Up for Negotiation'

But Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, a member of the business-friendly Free Democratic Party, Merkel's junior coalition partner, provided only tepid support for the idea. "If one can improve the Schengen system, then that is a good thing and one should do it," he said. "But freedom of travel in Europe is an important achievement and it should not be up for negotiation."

Bulgaria and Romania, both of which are to become part of Europe's border-free zone later this year, also expressed support, although they urged that any changes first be made after they have become members. The Netherlands, Greece and Malta have also offered their support for Schengen adjustments.

"I will resist those who call for simply re-instating border controls," said Dutch Immigration Minister Gerd Leers on Wednesday. "But I welcome the debate on how to strengthen and improve the Schengen rules to combat illegal immigration, especially in these times of turmoil."

The discussion has gained steam this week as a result of a Tuesday meeting between French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi that resulted in a joint letter to the EU demanding that changes be made to allow border checks in "exceptional" situations. The European Commission is expected to announce its own ideas regarding Schengen reform next week.

Arrests in Paris

The meeting between Sarkozy and Berlusconi came about after weeks of squabbling between the neighboring countries over the fate of thousands of refugees who have made the difficult journey over the Mediterranean Sea from Tunisia to the Italian island of Lampedusa in recent months. When Europe showed reluctance in helping Italy with the influx, Rome responded by issuing the migrants with temporary residency permits.

Many of them took the opportunity to travel onward to France. French is spoken widely in Tunisia and many have relatives in the country. But last week, France temporarily stopped a train carrying Tunisian immigrants at the border and has also increased searches of vehicles arriving from Italy. On Wednesday, 60 suspected illegal immigrants were taken into custody in Paris and an additional 15 were arrested in Marseilles.

The recent wave of immigrants began with the overthrow of Tunisian autocrat Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in mid-January. Since then, the Egyptian regime of Hosni Mubarak has also toppled and NATO fighter jets continue to support rebels in their efforts to overthrow dictator Moammar Gadhafi. Southern European countries fear that the problem will get worse before it gets better.

Criticism of Berlusconi and Sarkozy, however, has been widespread. Many have pointed out that Sarkozy has been a vocal supporter of increased political freedoms in North Africa -- and he pushed hard for the international military intervention in Libya. As the Guardian wrote  on Wednesday, "if you bomb people … they will run and seek refuge elsewhere -- it really is as simple as that."

Pressure from the Far Right

There also, however, may be domestic pressures pushing the two leaders to take a hard line on immigration. Sarkozy is up for re-election in 2012 and has historically shown a tendency to shift to the right in search of voters. Furthermore, the far right Front National led by Marine Le Pen, which is strongly opposed to immigration, is doing well in the polls while Sarkozy's own UMP has been struggling.

The UMP has been at pains to portray its current effort to modify Schengen as being fuelled by economic concerns. "Do we have the means to absorb job-related immigration? The answer is no," Jean-Francios Cope, head of the UMP, told the Associated Press. "The measures we are taking are linked to the economic and budgetary situation," he added.

Berlusconi, for his part, heads up a conservative coalition which has become increasingly wobbly in recent months due to increased attention being paid to his numerous scandals. One of his most important coalition partners is the notoriously anti-immigrant Lega Nord.

The European Union is working together with Tunisia in an attempt to slow down the influx, but so far only a limited number of illegal immigrants are returned to the North African country. Interim Prime Minister Beji Caid urged his countrymen to stay earlier this week. "We were at the origin of a crisis between European countries," he said. "We must control our frontiers and block the road to specialists in human trafficking."

cgh -- with wire reports
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