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Arab refugee influx causes Europe to rethink its open borders

France wants to overhaul the Schengen agreement, which allows free movement across European borders. A key issue: including large groups of immigrants among the potential 'threats to public order' that allow temporary internal border controls.

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The 1985 treaty, signed in the village of Schengen, Luxembourg, by Germany, France, and the Benelux countries did away with barriers and checks at the borders between those states. Today, 25 countries have joined the agreement: all EU members with the exception of the UK, Ireland, Cyprus, Bulgaria, and Romania; plus Norway, Iceland, and Switzerland. Some 400 million people live within the Schengen area; they can step onto a train in Finland and get off in Portugal, covering 4,000 kilometers and crossing a dozen countries without having to present their passports even once.

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The freedom of the Schengen agreement collides with another European system: managing the influx of irregular migrants from outside the Union. According to EU rules, these migrants have to remain in the country they arrived in unless they can be sent back to where they came from. Given the geography of migration routes today, that means that Greece, Italy, and Spain are taking the brunt.

In the past, most immigrants were keen to travel on to the richer countries in the north, such as the UK, Germany, or the Netherlands, and Schengen made it easier for them to reach most destinations. The 30,000 Tunisians who have arrived in Italy lately are mostly heading to France. They speak the language and many have relatives or friends who already live there. Italy, eager to ease the burden on their reception camps in Lampedusa and Sicily, issued temporary residency permits and ushered them on.

That’s when French President Nicholas Sarkozy stepped in. On April 17, a train carrying Tunisian migrants was held in Ventimiglia, a former checkpoint at the French-Italian border. Italy lodged a protest with the French government; a crisis summit in Rome between Mr. Sarkozy and Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi some days later diffused the diplomatic row and started the drive for a review of the Schengen agreement that prompted today’s extraordinary Brussels meeting.

EU Commissioner for Home Affairs Cecilia Malmström insists the system will not be undermined. “These measures should be a last resort. We need more Europe, not less," she said. “And creating a safe Europe does not mean we’re building a fortress Europe.”

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