The leaders of France and Italy yesterday called for an overhaul of the system of passport-free travel across 25 European nations following alarm in Paris over the effect of a wave of migrants fleeing conflict in North Africa.
The Italian premier, Silvio Berlusconi, and French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, said they wanted new border restrictions in a notable watering down of the aims of the 1995 Schengen deal for free movement of people across most of continental Europe.
The pair issued their demand at a summit in Rome designed to repair relations between the two countries that had been damaged by the dispute over the fate of many of the 28,000 people who have fled political turmoil in North Africa. Most of those landed first on the Italian island of Lampedusa, creating a humanitarian and political crisis that the Italian authorities attempted to solve by diverting many to France, prompting a furious response from its north-western neighbour. Mr Berlusconi yesterday acknowledged the greater burden faced by France after the exodus triggered by the revolt in Tunisia, the first nation to topple its leader in the wave of unrest sweeping the Arab world. In another sop to France, Italy hours earlier also agreed to play a role in bombing Gaddafi forces in the French-inspired Libyan campaign.
The leaders detailed their demands in a joint letter to the EU, and said they were working on proposals to change Schengen. Both Mr Berlusconi and Mr Sarkozy – who faces a presidential election in a year's time – are under pressure from right-wing parties to adopt a tough line on immigration.
"We want Schengen to survive, but to survive Schengen must be reformed," Mr Sarkozy told reporters after the meeting. "We believe in free circulation but we believe in a state of law and a certain number of rules."
Mr Berlusconi said no one wanted to cancel the treaty, but added "in exceptional circumstances we believe there must be variations".
After weeks of arrivals – and the deaths of hundreds while making the journey from the African mainland in rickety boats – Italy issued temporary residency permits to thousands of Tunisian immigrants. The visas were issued in the knowledge that many would head for France, the former colonial ruler, where many had friends or relatives.
Paris responded by accusing its neighbour of abusing the Schengen agreement. As thousands of Tunisians attempt to cross into France with their temporary visas, French authorities initially blocked the migrants' passage, by stopping trains arriving from the Italian border town of Ventimiglia.
It appeared yesterday that Italy has been the first to back down, with Mr Berlusconi yesterday acknowledging the greater burden of immigration facing France. "Every year France takes 50,000 migrants; Italy an average of 10,000," he said. "We're aware of this and on our part there's no desire to launch accusations at France."
Italy's centre-left opposition Democratic Party mocked the government for taking a "sensational step backwards" on the immigration issue. "In a short time we have passed from accusing the French to applauding the closure of Ventimiglia," said Sandro Gozi, the party's spokesman for EU issues, in a reference to the border disputes.
According to the centre-left La Repubblica newspaper, Mr Berlusconi's compliance over changes to Schengen helped Italy to secure French support for its candidate for the next presidency of the European Central Bank, Mario Draghi. But referring to Mr Draghi by name, Mr Sarkozy said: "We aren't supporting him because he's Italian. We're supporting him because he's an excellent candidate."
In a nod to Italian concerns, yesterday's joint French-Italian letter also calls for the European Union's border agency, Frontex, to be strengthened and for greater support from Brussels for those states, like Italy, most exposed to immigration.
Professor James Walston of the American University in Rome said the main reason for Mr Berlusconi's decision to back France's new border restrictions was to defuse the diplomatic crisis. "Italy issued those temporary permits of dubious legality. This is a way for Mr Berlusconi to paper over the cracks and appear tough on immigration," he said.