Sarkozy flies to Rome amid immigration row

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French President Nicolas Sarkozy flew to Rome on Tuesday in a bid to patch up relations damaged by a festering row over thousands of Tunisian migrants who have been crossing into France from Italy.

France wants to "turn the page," a source in Sarkozy's office told AFP as the French leader held talks with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

The source said that the meeting, which comes after weeks of diplomatic squabbling, would result in "an initiative by France and Italy in Brussels".

Sarkozy and Berlusconi plan to issue a joint letter to European Union leaders calling for a revision of Europe's open-border treaty that would make it easier to impose temporary controls at the frontier, Italian media reported.

France and Italy will also demand a bolstering of the EU's Warsaw-based border agency Frontex and a bigger EU effort to establish immigration agreements with countries in the southern Mediterranean, the reports said.

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

"Tensions have never been so high," Italy's Corriere della Sera daily said, explaining that the traditional France-Italy summit was only due to take place this summer but had been brought forward because of the dispute.

France has close ties to former colony Tunisia, and many would-be migrants among the more than 20,000 Tunisians given papers by Italy have friends and relatives in French cities and have been streaming across the border.

Both Berlusconi and Sarkozy -- who faces a presidential election in a year's time -- are under right-wing pressure on immigration at a time in which unrest in North Africa has displaced thousands of people around the Mediterranean.

First signed in 1985 as a giant step towards European integration, the treaty opening passport-free travel to 400 million people in 25 nations is in the line of fire as divided EU nations squabble over the migrant arrivals.

Italy has complained for weeks of being left alone to cope with the arrival of a total of nearly 30,000 migrants from North Africa so far this year, some fleeing the conflict in Libya, the majority economic refugees from Tunisia.

The two leaders are also expected to discuss policy on Libya, after Italy on Monday announced it would participate in NATO air strikes against the regime after initial reluctance due to Italy's colonial history in the country.

Rome is also preparing to host a meeting of an international contact group on Libya early next month that is expected to outline financial and material assistance measures for the opposition to embattled leader Moamer Kadhafi.

The two leaders are finally set to debate the thorny issue of recent inroads by French companies into the Italian economy with a string of takeover moves, which have raised nationalist sentiment in the weakened Italian economy.

Earlier on Tuesday, French dairy giant Lactalis launched a 3.4 billion euro ($4.9 billion) takeover bid for Italy's Parmalat saying it would create the biggest dairy products company in the world.

Lactalis already owns a 29-percent stake in Parmalat and controls Italian firm Galbani. Italian critics have raised fears that its takeover of Parmalat could give it a monopolistic position on the Italian market.

© 2011 AFP

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