EU draws up conditions for policing Schengen borders

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The EU executive said Tuesday it is drawing up "precise conditions" under which states angry with the realities of borderless travel across Europe's passport-free Schengen area may temporarily police internal frontiers once more.

The European Commission will spell out next week the full room for manoeuvre available to the likes of France -- which would like to restore emergency national controls after a 1985 treaty abolishing border posts grew to encompass 25 continental states that are home to 400 million people.

"It's already (theoretically) possible to re-establish temporary controls at national borders," said spokesman Olivier Bailly.

"What we're looking for is to spell out the precise conditions under which that can be done" in exceptional circumstances.

Proposals due to be made public by European Union home affairs commissioner Cecilia Malmstroem on May 4 will be studied by interior ministers on May 12, Bailly said.

At a meeting in Rome, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi issued a joint letter to the commission asking the possibility of restoring border checks "temporarily in cases of exceptional difficulty in managing common external borders."

Tens of thousands of mainly Tunisians have fled democratic uprisings and crackdowns in north Africa since January, most heading for Europe through Italian shores including the tiny Mediterranean island of Lampedusa.

Italy has accused EU partners of abandoning it in the fight against economic immigration.

Paris in turn has accused Rome of abusing Schengen by issuing temporary residence permits and travel documents to migrants in the knowledge many among the French-speaking Tunisians want to go to France.

Both Berlusconi and Sarkozy -- who faces a presidential election in a year's time -- are under right-wing pressure on immigration.

Bailly said restored border patrols would only be a "last resort".

The commission was trying to "help resolve differences in interpretation" when an EU state with an external bloc border, such as Italy, "does not respect its obligations (to EU partners) or takes unilateral decisions," he said.

However, he stressed that "in no way" would routine border controls be returned within Europe. "You would have to leave the EU to suspend Schengen," he said.

Currently, only a "serious threat" to public order or internal security can be used as exceptional justification for temporary border controls, which would need renewed after 30 days, although what constitutes a "serious" threat is up to states.

The commission refused to say whether illegal immigration is such a threat when asked on Tuesday, but said the "pressure of public opinion" on national administrations meant it had to "come up with answers."

© 2011 AFP

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