France and Italy met for talks Tuesday looking to end a diplomatic spat over an influx of North African migrants. But some analysts say the dispute is motivated by political aims rather than a real desire to weaken the Schengen open-border treaty.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi have promised to put an end to their countries' bitter diplomatic spat at a meeting in Rome Tuesday in the wake of concern over an influx of North African immigrants.
The resolution of the dispute is eagerly anticipated in a number of European countries after France urged changes to the EU's open-border pact, also known as the Schengen Agreement. It allows visa-free movement between 25 European countries and is a flagship policy of the European Union.
Schengen is the small town in Luxembourg where, in June 1985, seven European Union countries signed a treaty to end internal border checkpoints and controls.
The Schengen area now comprises 25 countries, 22 of them EU members. It has border controls on entering and leaving the area, but none on travel within it.
EU Schengen members: France, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Austria, Greece, Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Czech Republic, Hungary, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia.
Non EU Schengen members: Switzerland, Iceland, Norway
Non Schengen EU members: Bulgaria, Cyprus, Ireland, Romania and the United Kingdom.
As thousands of North African immigrants shuttle back and forth across the French-Italian border, authorities on both sides have accused each other of thwarting the spirit of the Schengen treaty.
The French government has argued that, by allowing migrants from North Africa to travel through the border town of Ventimiglia into France, Italy is washing its hands of responsibility for their fate. The EU Commission has sided with France.
Paris said it wanted to amend the treaty so that member states would be at liberty to restrict the flow of people crossing their borders for security reasons. Although a provisional measure allowing this already exists, it is complicated and rarely invoked. “The current clauses are not entirely suitable for every situation,” Henri Guaino, a special adviser to President Sarkozy, told French television on Sunday. “What we’re asking is to be able – in some situations – to exercise more efficient controls at our national borders.”
Guaino insisted that the proposed amendments were not anti-European, though many remained unconvinced. “It’s completely false to say that these proposals are not anti-European,” Philippe Perchoc, a European integration expert, told FRANCE 24. “The equivalent would be temporarily leaving the eurozone just because of the financial crisis. We chose to share our borders with our neighbours. We cannot go back on that and, at the same time, say we are pro-European.”
Under pressure from the far right
Italy, for its part, expressed its own misgivings about Schengen when Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said that the treaty needed to be reviewed. “All treaties inevitably grow old,” he told the Italian daily Il Sole 24 Ore on Sunday. “The issue is to analyse how this instrument could be adapted to our times and to a world which changes rapidly.”
Some commentators have attributed the heightened anti-European rhetoric on both sides of the border to the growing popularity of the far right in both countries. In recent months, Sarkozy has been accused of playing to supporters of the National Front, headed by Marine Le Pen, in an attempt not to lose right-leaning voters ahead of next year’s presidential election.
“This is a political issue,” Alain Dauvergne, a French journalist specialised in European issues, told FRANCE 24. “It’s something Sarkozy is doing because of advances from Marine Le Pen’s far-right party. In my opinion, Sarkozy and Berlusconi are both going to try to fan the flames for their own political benefit. They’ll talk about putting the issue on the table, bringing the debate to the European Council ... But nothing will actually change.”
France and Italy would need the agreement of all 25 Schengen signatory states to amend the treaty. “If Sarkozy went ahead with this it would be a terribly bad sign from the French in regard to Europe,” says Perchoc. “Although he needs to impress the electorate before next year’s elections, he still has an international reputation to maintain.”
Guaino has promised a “calm and amicable” meeting between the two leaders Tuesday, and while it is likely that Italy will be granted more aid money to deal with immigration issues, the fate of some 25,000 homeless migrants is yet to be determined.
“All this buzz, it's pure hot air,” says Dauvergne. “Schengen is not going to disappear, and France is certainly not going to disappear from it.”