France seeks change to Schengen border agreement

Migrants on one of the trains in Rome leaving for France (image from 21/4/2011)
Image caption Italy accused France of overstepping the treaty by blocking trains with migrants at the border

France has called for an easier mechanism to temporarily suspend an agreement which allows freedom of movement across 25 European countries.

The move follows an influx of migrants from Tunisia and Libya into Italy.

Italy's decision to grant Tunisians 20,000 temporary residence permits, allowing free travel in the passport-free Schengen zone, has angered France.

Last week, French officials temporarily stopped trains with migrants crossing the border from Italy into France.

The decision sparked anger between Italy and France, with Italy accusing its neighbour of overstepping the treaty on border-free travel.

Exceptional circumstances

In an off-the-record but widely-reported briefing, a senior French official said: "The governance of Schengen is failing. It seems there is a need to reflect on a mechanism that will allow a temporary suspension of the agreement, in case of a systemic failure of an external (EU) border."

The official, at the presidential Elysee Palace, said that any such an intervention would be provisional, until any "weakness" in the system was corrected.

The BBC's Hugh Schofield, in Paris, says that this is a highly controversial idea, deliberately floated by the French government just before the Easter break when any reaction from Brussels will inevitably be slow in coming.

Suspension of the agreement is permitted under the Schengen Pact, but only in the case of a "grave threat to the public order or internal security".

Under the current agreement, in these exceptional circumstances, border controls can only initially be reintroduced for a maximum of 30 days.

Mr Sarkozy is due to address the problem of migrants entering France through Italy when he meets Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi on Tuesday in Rome.

Earlier this month, Italy and France agreed to launch sea and air patrols to try to prevent the influx of thousands of people from Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.

Many Tunisians have close ties with France - a former colonial power - with friends and relatives in French cities.

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