Row over African immigrants threatens free travel
Italy gives travel papers to thousands of migrants
The European Union’s scheme to abolish national borders - allowing free movement between member countries - is under major threat.
Five major countries are bringing back border checks on travellers to try to deter the arrival of thousands of migrants fleeing political upheavals in North Africa.
A major row was under way between France and Italy after the French abandoned their agreement to allow free travel and stopped trains carrying Tunisian migrants on the Italian border.
Refugees: Italian policemen stand guard over migrants on Lampedusa. Many have been given travel documents and are now trying to reach France
Journey of their lives: North African children inside a detention centre on Lampedusa. The French government has locked down borders to keep them out
The return of inspections of travel documents is a major blow to the Schengen agreement, the deal that allows people to move between 25 EU countries without passports or visas and without being held up by customs or immigration checks at borders.
The development of Schengen has run alongside the construction of the euro as the foundation stones of a united Europe since core EU countries first signed a no-borders deal at the Luxembourg town after which the treaty is named in 1985.
The cracks in the agreement follow the troubles of the euro, which has been undermined by the debt crises in Greece, Ireland and Portugal, and which now faces further trouble from political resistance in the euro member countries expected to finance bailouts for the debtor countries.
Difficulties with the Schengen agreement multiplied after 26,000 Tunisian migrants arrived in Italy in the wake of the country’s revolution earlier this year. Most reached the EU through the Italian island of Lampedusa off the Tunisian coast.
However many do not want to remain in Italy but aim to travel to France. French authorities were displeased when the Italian government issued the migrants with temporary residence permits that allow them to travel freely through the Schengen countries.
Ethnic tension: Tunisian would-be immigrants scuffle with police in their temporary accomodation, a tent camp in Manduria, near Taranto
France acted on Sunday, halting trains at the northern Italian border tow of Ventimiglia to prevent groups of Tunisians from entering France.
Italian politicians reacted with fury. Foreign Minister Franco Fattini said France had broken Schengen rules and added: ‘If the situation persists, we would save time by just saying that we are changing our minds about free circulation, which is one of the fundamental principles of the union.’
Rome’s Interior Minister Roberto Maroni said the Tunisians must be allowed to move freely through the Schengen countries. ‘We have given the migrants travel documents, and we gave everything that is needed,’ he said.
Travel documents: Roberto Maroni, Rome's Interior Minister, said the Tunisians must be allowed to move freely
However the mayor of Nice, Christian Estrosi, a prominent supporter of French President Sarkozy, responded: ‘It’s a bit easy for Italy to be generous with other people’s territory. What are the consequences of this? Italy, in the name of the EU, has made an incredible offer of hope to North African immigrants. This is not acceptable.’
Checks on documents at borders are now being reintroduced by France, the Netherlands and Belgium, which is demanding that Tunisians arriving on Italian temporary permits can show they have at least 10,000 euros.
Austria has indicated that it is looking for ways to curb the movement of migrants, and German Interior Minister Jens Teschke said there would be ‘more intensive observation’ of people arriving at road and rail borders and airports.
French ministers have said their introduction of checks on trains complies with the Schengen rules, which allow occasional police inspections on borders as long as there are no regular and routine controls.
N. African refugees
They also said they had security concerns because political activists were on the trains, and that people travelling on Italian permits would have to show they had enough money to support themselves.
The 25 Schengen countries include most EU members together with Switzerland, Norway and Ireland. Britain and Ireland have never taken part in the free movement zone, and keep their own border controls - although Britain is not allowed to turn away citizens of EU countries who want to enter.