Schengen zone: EU to clarify new border controls

Tunisian migrants held in France, 5 May 11 Image copyright AP
Image caption Many Tunisian illegal migrants have entered Europe this year amid unrest in North Africa

Countries in the EU's Schengen open border zone will be able to reimpose restrictions to prevent an influx of migrants, EU leaders have agreed.

The measure is a response to pressure from France and Italy, who have been wrangling over thousands of illegal migrants from strife-torn North Africa.

Italy allowed many French-speaking Tunisians to travel on to France.

The EU will now create a new mechanism for the 25-nation Schengen zone, to allow for temporary border controls.

Schengen abolished routine passport checks across most of the EU and is regarded by Brussels as one of the bloc's greatest achievements.

At their Brussels summit on Friday EU leaders asked the European Commission to revise the Schengen system so that countries could reintroduce border controls temporarily "in a truly critical situation".

The new mechanism will allow countries facing unusual migration pressures to escalate their border controls, "without jeopardising the principle of free movement of persons".

"As a very last resort... a safeguard clause could be introduced to allow the exceptional reintroduction of internal border controls," the summit conclusions say.

Such a move would be based on "a common [EU] assessment" and would be "for a strictly limited scope and period of time".

The European Commission has been asked to present plans for the mechanism in September.

Schengen requires the member states to apply uniform controls on the EU's external borders.

Most EU states are in Schengen, as are three non-EU countries: Iceland, Norway and Switzerland.

Five EU countries remain outside: Bulgaria, Cyprus, the Irish Republic, Romania and the UK.

Schengen currently allows for the temporary reimposition of border controls in special cases to ensure public order, and that has been done for some major sports events.

But now Brussels wants such temporary measures to be spelled out clearly on an EU-wide level.

Joint asylum system

The EU leaders also pledged to adopt a Common European Asylum System (CEAS) this year, to provide common EU-wide procedures for asylum seekers.

UK Prime Minister David Cameron expressed relief that the conclusions did not call for more EU burden-sharing in the area of asylum.

Under the EU's Dublin II Regulation asylum requests have to be handled by the country where the asylum seeker first arrived in the EU.

Greece, Italy and Malta have complained that the current system puts an unfair burden on them.

Mr Cameron said he had been worried before the summit "about potential proposals to suspend the Dublin arrangements that allow us to return asylum seekers to the country from which they have come".

"Britain and Germany together made sure that these proposals aren't even referred to in any way in the Council conclusions. I think that is important. We want controlled migration in Europe and controlled migration above all in Britain."

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