French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi have put aside their differences to call on the European Union to reform the Schengen zone of border-free travel. German commentators dismiss the move as a populist stunt.
Relations between the traditional allies France and Italy have soured in recent weeks. But at Tuesday's summit in Rome, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi put on a show of unity -- and called on the European Union to revise the Schengen agreement that allows passport-free travel inside much of Europe.
Berlusconi and Sarkozy signed a joint letter to the EU to demand that the Schengen agreement be amended to take into consideration "exceptional" situations such as the current massive influx of immigrants from North Africa.
"We want Schengen to survive, but to survive Schengen must be reformed," Sarkozy said after the meeting.
Berlusconi said no one wanted to abolish the agreement, but that "in exceptional circumstances we believe there must be variations." He said there should be a "principle of solidarity" among European countries, and that Mediterranean countries should not be left to deal with immigration problems on their own.
The EU executive, the European Commission, is already scheduled to announce its own plans to reform Schengen on May 4. Its proposals will define what "exceptional conditions" are required for national border checks to be "temporarily" reinstated. Those proposals will then be discussed at a special meeting of EU interior ministers on May 11. If all goes according to plan, the reforms wil be approved at an EU summit at the end of June.
Tuesday's demands come after weeks of squabbling between the two countries. France had sharply criticized Italy for issuing temporary residency permits to around 20,00 Tunisian migrants who have come to Italy since the overthrow of dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in mid-January. Around 26,000 Tunisians have entered the EU via the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa, which lies just 120 kilometers (75 miles) off the Tunisian coast. From there, many of them want to carry on to France, the former colonial power.
Last week, France temporarily stopped a train carrying Tunisian immigrants from Italy at the French border. France has said it will honor the temporary visas issued by Italy but says it will send back those migrants who do not hold a passport and cannot show that they are able to support themselves financially. For its part, Italy insists that other EU members must show solidarity and share the burden of coping with the influx.
Many observers see the French and Italian leaders as striking a populist stance in response to pressure from far-right parties in their countries. Sarkozy, who is running for re-election in 2012, is under threat from Marine Le Pen's far-right National Front, which strongly opposes immigration, while Berlusconi is under pressure from the xenophobic Northern League, the country's third strongest party which is part of Berlusconi's coalition government.
The Schengen agreement was originally signed in 1985 in the Luxembourg town of that name and went into effect in 1995. A total of 22 EU members are currently part of the system, as are Norway, Switzerland and Iceland. Britain and Ireland are not, however, members. Along with the euro common currency, the Schengen zone is seen as one of the European Union's main achievements.
Under the current arrangement, countries can already suspend the passport-free regime for reasons of national security. Germany, for example, reinstated border checks during the 2006 soccer World Cup in order to prevent any hooliganism.
On Wednesday, German commentators take a look at the joint call for Schengen reform.
The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:
"Sarkozy's and Berlusconi's joint letter to Brussels, in which they ask their partners to help them secure their external borders and even reintroduce border controls within Europe, sounds pretty flimsy. There is nothing new about its contents. The EU's border agency Frontex is already being deployed to track down refugees today. And a number of clauses in the Schengen agreement already make it possible to carry out checks at national borders or close them temporarily, for example because of violent demonstrations. The fact that Sarkozy and Berlusconi are now demanding that the Schengen agreement be reformed again, in order to reimpose restrictions on freedom of travel within the EU, sounds like a mockery."
"Instead of sealing themselves off, the Europeans would be better advised to help people in need in their home countries so that they have the chance of a decent life. An example of how this can work can be found on the other side of the Atlantic. There, the United States has not only secured its border with Mexico, but also invested in the neighboring country. Rising levels of exports to the US shows that the approach works."
The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:
"Berlusconi and Sarkozy showered each other with compliments. They wanted to convince other Europeans that statesmen like them don't get bogged down in small feuds, but instead forge grand plans such as the rescue of the Schengen area. Incidentally, both of them have helped inflame the dispute over the Tunisians who were able to travel from Lampedusa to the French border more easily because Italy had issued them with travel papers. Now Berlusconi has had to pay a high price, in the form of acknowledging that Paris has to deal with a lot more illegal immigrants than Rome. In return, Sarkozy made use of his colleague's dramatic talents to urge the Germans and other northern Europeans to help out the allegedly overburdened Mediterranean countries. ... But the mistrust that can be seen in the demand for new exceptions to the principle of freedom of movement creates little hope that the EU is capable of such an act of solidarity right now."
The left-leaning Die Tageszeitung writes:
"The French president considers the fact that around 30,000 North Africans have taken the opportunity to enter the EU via Lampedusa to be the collateral damage of the Arab Revolution. The idea that the majority of the mostly French-speaking immigrants want to get to France is causing him a headache. Not because France couldn't cope with a few thousand extra immigrants, but because the influx is grist to the xenophobic mill of Marine Le Pen's right-wing populist National Front, which is increasing challenging Sarkozy's claim to leadership of the right-wing conservative camp in France."
"Sarkozy's nationalist calls to defend the country are aimed at the voters who have been switching to the right-wing populists. With his demand that the Schengen agreement be revised and the borders be closed, the French president is stoking fears of invasion and foreigners -- the very fears that the far right has been exploiting in France with some success. But Sarkozy should know from past experience that it is counterproductive to try to exploit xenophobia in an attempt to put the brakes on the National Front."
-- David Gordon Smith
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