Germany and France are seeking to curb free movement in Europe by demanding the right to reintroduce unilateral border controls to stem the flow of illegal immigrants entering the European Union.
Berlin has backed a French campaign to give members of the EU’s borderless zone the power to carry out controls on their frontiers when there are influxes of immigrants via weakly policed borders in countries such as Greece.
Passport-free travel within Europe’s “Schengen area”, which does not include Britain and Ireland, is regarded as a major achievement.
But what applies to European travellers also applies to illegal immigrants, allowing them entry to any EU country without showing identity papers.
Following demands by Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, and during an election where immigration is a major issue, Germany is now supporting a “non-negotiable” right to start national border controls if a country identifies an “exceptional” frontier problem.
“If the operation of the Schengen area is compromised, the other member states must have, ultimately, the possibility of reintroducing checks at internal borders for a period not exceeding 30 days,” said a letter signed by the German and French interiors ministers and leaked yesterday.
Mr Sarkozy has threatened to pull France out of Europe’s border-free travel zone if more is not done to tackle illegal immigration. The Franco-German proposal will be discussed at a meeting of EU interior ministers next week.
The EU’s passport-free travel zone has been under unprecedented pressure since April last year after Italy gave residence permits to more than 25,000 Arab migrants, allowing them unfettered access to the rest of the continent.
France, the likely destination of the mainly French-speaking Tunisian immigrants, responded by temporarily closing a key railway frontier with Italy and by introducing tough extra checks for papers on immigrants.
In March, Britain joined Germany, France, Austria, Holland, Belgium and Sweden to demand EU intervention to plug a hole that is allowing illegal immigration via Greece into the rest of Europe. The Franco-German demand for new controls does not specifically mention Greece but diplomats said Athens was the main concern, especially as European funding was given to the Greeks for border checks.
The European Commission opposes the unilateral right to impose border controls and is pushing for a “European- based system of decision making” with majority votes of Schengen members deciding if a country is allowed to reintroduce controls beyond a five-day period.