By RACHEL DONADIO and ALAN COWELL
April 26, 2011
ROME — Facing a surge in undocumented migrants from North Africa, the leaders of France and Italy on Tuesday called for changes in the Schengen Agreement, which grants free passage across national frontiers in most of Western Europe.
The appeal, in a joint letter to the president of the European Commission, represented a remarkable request to change a pact that has become one of the European Union’s hallmark agreements. Under the treaty, which dates from 1985, 25 European Union member nations dismantled border controls for their own citizens and citizens of other countries.
Analysts said it was highly unlikely that the European Union would revise the agreement, and many said the joint request appeared to be aimed more at reducing political tensions between and within the two countries.
The looser borders have begun to pose problems of illegal immigration, as immigrants who arrive in one European Union member state can travel freely to others. The joint request reflected the severity of the migration crisis — in practical terms as well as for Italy and France’s domestic politics, in which anti-immigrant parties have substantial influence.
“Neither of us wants to deny Schengen, but in exceptional circumstances, we think there should be variations to the Schengen treaty,” Italy’s prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, said at a joint news conference here with President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, after weeks of tensions.
“We want Schengen to work, and to make sure that it works, it has to be reformed,” Mr. Sarkozy added.
In a joint letter to José Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission, the two leaders called on the European Union to “examine the possibility of temporarily establishing internal border controls in the case of exceptional difficulties in handling common external borders, on the basis of conditions to be defined in the future.”
France and Italy also called on the European Union to broaden the role of its border agency, Frontex, to allow it to repatriate illegal immigrants, and to “redefine” Europe’s regulations for immigrants from third countries. Under current regulations, the European country where immigrants first arrive is responsible for determining their status.
Faced with the likelihood of a wave of immigrants arriving in Europe from Libya, they also called for a common European Union policy on those seeking political asylum. Each country currently has its own standards.
In recent weeks, Italy has been reluctant to become involved in the intervention championed by France to oust Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi from Libya, a former Italian colony. France has been reluctant to admit third-country immigrants from Italy — most of them from Tunisia, which historically has had close ties to France.
Italy infuriated France by issuing some Tunisians travel papers allowing them to leave Italy for France, which has tried to block them at its borders with Italy.
Rachel Donadio reported from Rome, and Alan Cowell from London.