North Africa migration tests Europe's open border system
Europe's open borders are facing a major test with a flood of north African migrants straining neighbourly relations, raising fears barriers will be dusted off and placed back between countries.
Despite tensions between France and Italy over how to handle the thousands of new migrants, European Union Immigration Commissioner Cecilia Malmstroem dismisses any talk of doom for the 25-nation Schengen area, which allows 400 million people to travel across the continent without a passport.
"This would be dangerous because Schengen is one of the foundations of free movement in the European Union," Malmstroem said.
The Spanish newspaper El Pais wondered: "If Schengen falls, then we can ask what the European Union's good for."
The tensions over migrants fleeing unrest in north Africa coincide with the rise of far-right populist parties that have put pressure on mainstream governments in Europe and waning appetite to expand Schengen to eastern Europe.
The anti-immigration Northern League in Italy is a junior partner in Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's government while France's National Front is a perennial force in French politics and Finland's True Finns were the latest to score big in elections on Sunday.
In the context of rising populism, the exodus of 25,000 Tunisians who have arrived on Italy's shores following a popular revolt in December and January is posing a new challenge to Schengen.
After Berlusconi failed to convince his European partners to help his country cope with the influx, his government decided to grant temporary residency permits to them, angering his neighbours, notably France and Germany.
"Italy cheated the European rules," said Melchior Wathelet, Belgian secretary of state for migration.
A European diplomat complained that Italian Interior Minister Roberto Maroni of the Northern League, "is using Tunisian migrants for electoral points for his party because he knows he has a lot to gain from this".
France's Marine Le Pen, leader of the National Front, wants her country to slam its doors shut and leave Schengen.
With many Tunisians hoping to join friends and family in France, Paris responded by stepping up controls near its border while Germany and Austria may follow suit.
French authorities caused a diplomatic raucus at the weekend by blocking a train from Italy carrying Tunisian migrants heading to a protest.
Berlusconi is hosting French President Nicolas Sarkozy in Rome on Tuesday for a summit that could cool down tensions between the two countries.
But Schengen has hit a rough patch, with France and Germany refusing to let Romania and Bulgaria join the area until they clean up corruption.
With Greece struggling with its own wave of migrants at the border with Turkey, Paris and Berlin have suggested the possibility of temporarily changing the EU's external borders in case one of its members is unable to control them.
"There are problems within Schengen, notably with the external borders," Malmstroem said. "We must talk about it, but without questioning the whole system."
She acknowledged that "the action of certain political currents are affecting the debate".
Wathelet hammered home the concerns over populism: "Unfortunately, when we face a crisis, to cut off from the outside world is often the easiest reaction."
© 2011 AFP