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Europe tackles shake-up of border-free area

An Arab Spring has fanned fears of a deluge of immigrants looking for a European El Dorado, prompting calls for a shake-up of a border-less area allowing unfettered travel across 25 nations.

With Italy and Greece struggling to manage a stream of migrants landing on their shores, some neighbours like France fear illegal immigrants will march across the continent’s open borders.

The European Commission has proposed introducing a mechanism that would allow states to temporarily reinstate checkpoints during sudden surges in migration or if an EU country fails to control its frontier with non-EU nations.

The Schengen agreement only allows states to reinstate border controls in case of security threats. While France and Italy have pushed for reform, Germany has warned against renegotiating Schengen.

While Europeans debate how to deal with immigration, Arab and sub-Saharan Africans continue to flee upheavals in Libya and Tunisia, undertaking perilous sea voyages highlighted by the rescue of more than 500 people whose ship hit rocks on the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa.

European home affairs commissioner Cecilia Malmstroem said the rescue “points once again to the need for urgent action.”

“The European Union must show solidarity towards the most exposed member states and also towards north African countries that bear the highest burden of the conflict in Libya,” Malmstroem said.

She called for “concerted action” to facilitate the relocation and resettlement of people in need of international protection.

But her hopes of kickstarting efforts for a common asylum policy and negotiating the return of illegal migrants to Tunisia are overshadowed by immediate security fears, analysts say.

“Issues like rights of migrants, protection of asylum seekers, fair sharing of solidarity and responsibility will still face, as always, many barriers,” said Sergio Carrera, analyst at the Centre for European Policy Studies.

Even though thousands have washed up on its shores since January, Italy said it still expects an influx of some 50,000 refugees fleeing unrest in North Africa and asked other European nations to help support the new arrivals.

“Europe must look after these refugees coming from Libya. It is the crux of the problem,” Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs Alfredo Mantica told La Stampa newspaper.

Italy released some 20,000 migrants into the rest of continental Europe when it handed temporary residency permits enabling unfettered travel across the Schengen open border area.

France responded by tightening controls at its border with Italy, causing a diplomatic spat last month when it stopped a train carrying Tunisian migrants.

French officials welcomed the commission proposal, saying it would compel countries to meet their obligations to control their borders with non-EU nations.

Carrera said it would give “more possibilities for member states to reintroduce internal controls and therefore jeopardise freedom of movement.”

The commission has called for a decision on controlling borders to be taken at the European level, but analysts say France and other nations would push to keep such calls in the hands of national governments.

Here are the key European Commission proposals:

To allow the temporary return of controls within the border-free Schengen area when the EU’s external borders come under “unexpected and heavy pressure due to external events.”

This could also be triggered when an EU state “is not fulfilling its obligations to control its section of the external border.”

The decision would have to be taken at European level to define which “member states would exceptionally reintroduce internal border control and for how long.”

It “should be used as a last resort in truly critical situations, until other (emergency) measures have been taken to stabilise the situation at the relevant external border section.”

The commission says the EU should reinforce cooperation with countries whose citizens are flocking to Europe illegally.

“However, it is equally clear that readmission negotiations with several countries, including with the most important countries of origin, and transit of irregular migration are difficult,” it said.

The lack of incentives offered to third countries, such as financial assistance and access to visas, “impedes the EU’s ability to effectively conclude and implement these agreements,” the commission says.

The EU executive has pushed for a deal to convince Tunisia to take back illegal immigrants.

To support the “burgeoning democratisation in North Africa,” the EU executive wants to enhance people-to-people contact by offering easier visa access to high-skilled workers, students, scholars and journalists.

“The EU needs to offer its partners in the neighbourhood a dynamic mobility policy, including visas.”

The commission is pushing for a common asylum policy to reduce the “wide divergence” of rules across the 27-state EU and calls for a deal by 2012. The negotiations have stalled so far.

Current rules call for asylum requests to be handled by the EU state where a refugee first arrived.

Ten EU states accounted for more than 90 percent of applications in 2010, the commission said. That year about 5,000 refugees resettled in the EU, compared to 75,000 in the United States.

“Resettlement must become an integral part of the EU asylum policy. It represents a life-saving measure for genuine refugees who might otherwise be obliged to make a dangerous journey to a place of permanent refuge.”

Amid concerns of abuses of visa exemptions that were granted to Balkan nations, the commission proposes to install a safeguard clause that would allow the temporary reintroduction of visa requirements.

Laurent Thomet / AFP / Expatica