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Shutting Schengen?

April 26, 2011

The leaders of France and Italy, facing pressure from anti-immigration parties at home, have called for tighter controls within the EU's open-border Schengen zone. Brussels has issued a lukewarm response.

Silvio Berlusconi and Nicolas Sarkozy shake hands
Berlusconi and Sarkozy agree, but Brussels is waryImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Tuesday's summit in Rome between Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and French President Nicolas Sarkozy produced a joint appeal by the two countries to the European Union to allow individual countries to impose tougher border controls within the union.

The appeal was a triumph of sorts for France, which was frustrated when several weeks ago Italy issued temporary visas to the Tunisian migrants who had landed on the southern Italian island of Lampedusa. Italy well knew that most of the migrants were headed for France, who in turn blocked some of the migrants at its border when they could not show they had enough money to travel further and pay for a night's lodging.

At a press conference following the Rome summit, Italian leader Silvio Berlusconi acknowledged that France takes five times the number of immigrants that Italy does – 50,000 compared to 10,000.

A road sign with the name "Schengen"written in black on yellow, with a red line crossed through it.
Both leaders say this is not an opt-out of the Schengen accordImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

He went on to say that neither country wanted to get rid of the Schengen accord, the treaty that allows for free movement between the European Union's 25 countries.

“Neither of us wants to deny the Schengen Accord,” said Berlusconi, “but in exceptional circumstances, we believe variations of the treaty should be permitted, which we'd like to work on together.”

“(The joint appeal) is basically a political move to gain public support,” said French-Italian columnist Eric Joseph. “It will be very difficult to change the rules of Schengen.”

Joseph points out that while the total number of Tunisian migrants is low – about 20,000 – the immigrant issue has enormous public weight in France and Italy, which both have powerful xenophobic political parties. In Italy, the Northern League plays a pivotal role in keeping Berusconi's center-right party in power.

“For the first time we have the same internal political dynamic in both Italy and France,” said Jean-Pierre Darnis, an expert in French-Italian relations at the International Affairs Institute in Rome. “For the past 20 years or so with the National Front in France, there's been pressure to say ‘no' to immigration. And now in Italy with the Northern League party, anti-immigration has become a battle cry.”

For Brussels, border controls are last resort

The European Commission said on Tuesday it was drawing up "precise conditions" under which states may temporarily introduce border controls.

A boat with immigrants on board arrives on the Italian island of Lampedusa
Migrants fleeing to Lampedusa are making waves in EuropeImage: picture alliance/dpa

"It's already possible to re-establish temporary controls at border controls," spokesman Olivier Bailly said, but he added that "in no way" could routine border controls again become the norm within the Schengen zone. "You would have to leave the EU to suspend Schengen," he said.

The EU's home affairs commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom is set to publish suggestions on May 4, to be reviewed by European interior ministers on May 12.

Friction eases over Libya

Some tension between France and Italy was eased before the bilateral summit began, when Italy announced that it would no longer limit its participation in the NATO mission in Libya to merely allowing access to its air bases.

One day earlier, Italy announced it would participate in NATO arial bombings in Libya. Its former refusal to do so had led to some resentment in France which, along with Britain and the United States, led the charge for military intervention in Libya.

Progress over Parmalat

Some show of good intentions was made concerning French dairy group Lactalis' bid to take over Italian rival Parmalat. French President Nicolas Sarkozy said French and Italian governments would name advisors to help negotiations between the two.

Lactalis, which already owns a third of Parmalat, launched a 3.375 billion euro takeover bid that Italy has tried to block. The Italian government passed new rules to protect companies in strategic sectors from foreign takeovers, claiming Parmalat was in the strategic sector of food production.

Parmalat milk bottles stand on the shelves of a supermarket in Milan, Italy.
France and Italy chose not to cry over spilt milk, but other issues could sour their relationshipImage: AP

"What we propose is that to facilitate the discussion between the two private groups one of our close aides on both sides will do all they can to help bring the two sides together," Sarkozy said.

Some tensions still unresolved

Despite France and Italy moving closer on the issues of immigration and Libya, deeper tension between the countries remains.

“Things have not be going well between France and Italy for months now,” said Jean-Pierre Darnis.

Darnis cited the accord France struck with Great Britain in late 2010, in which the two countries began to merge some of their military capabilities and in which Britain agreed to hand over the management of an important part of its nuclear arms to France.

“The Franco-British deal involves developing defense technologies such as satellites, telecommunications and remote-controlled war aircraft that are key for Italy,” says Darnis.

“These are key technologies that the Italian defense conglomerate Finmeccanica wants to develop. So, like Germany and Spain, Italy took the Franco-Britain accord badly.”

According to Darnis, tensions grew worse when France took a lead role in the intervention in Libya. Italy, he said, misinterpreted the move as a strategy for France to better position itself to access Libyan oil once the violence ended.

Author: Megan Williams, Rome
Editor: Susan Houlton