Italy's alarm ends dream of borderless Europe

The EU looks set to reimpose internal border checks amid fears in key Schengen Zone countries of uncontrolled North African immigration.

The Schengen pact, which came into force in 1995 and allows passport-free travel between 25 European states, has come under severe pressure this year following the large influx of migrants fleeing political turmoil in Tunisia and Libya.

EU leaders yesterday signalled that temporary border controls and stricter checks at Schengen entry points were on the way to placate fears that the zone's porous Mediterranean borders would see a surge of economic migrants wandering around the continent.

Last month Italy sought to rid itself of 20,000 French-speaking Tunisian migrants bygiving them temporary resident permits, knowing most would travel to France.

Paris reacted angrily and the resulting diplomatic spat saw Italy eventually back French calls for Schengen rules to be waived when circumstances called for it.

EU Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmstroem said in Brussels yesterday: "To safeguard the stability of the Schengen area, it may be necessary to foresee the temporary reintroduction of limited internal border controls under very exceptional circumstances, such as where a part of the external border comes under heavy, unexpected pressure."

The total number of migrants who have arrived from North Africa so far this year, around 30,000, is small compared with the Schengen area's 400 million population.

But Ms Malmstroem said the proposals were necessary in light of the "exceptional circumstances" and to ensure that the immigration did not play into the hands of extremists on a continent where the far-right is on the rise.

"We need European leadership that can stand up against populist and simplistic solutions," she said.

The plans will be put to EU ministers on 12 May and to a summit in late June.

The Party of European Socialists said yesterday it "deplores the attempt by conservatives to dismantle the Schengen agreement".

It said changing the accord "would attack the foundation of the European Union itself".

The treaty currently allows a country to restore border controls only in the case of a "grave threat to public order or internal security".

Such measures have seen passport checks restored temporarily to stop travelling football hooligans and summit protesters.

Pressure for changes to Schengen rules was stepped up yesterday as Norway's police association blamed rising crime on a lack of border curbs.

"Open borders in Europe have led to a situation where 80 per cent of crimes committed in Norway and other Nordic states are carried out by criminals who are either from the Baltic states or are strongly linked to organised crime in the Baltic states," said Egil Haaland, president of the Norwegian police association.

The long and porous Greek border is seen as another favourite entry point into Europe for economic migrants, with many taking budget flights to arrive first in neighbouring visa-free Turkey.

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