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Sacred Schengen

April 28, 2011

The German government has said the freedom to travel across dozens of internal European borders without a visa is one of the continent's most cherished policies. France and Italy want to introduce more border checks.

The border checks between Poland and Germany are being dismantled
Travelers no longer have to go through border checksImage: AP

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle has warned against taking away the luxury of visa-free travel enjoyed by millions of Europeans by reforming the Schengen Agreement. A German government spokesman said the treaty was sacrosanct.

"If you can improve the Schengen system, then that is good and you should," Westerwelle told reporters on Wednesday. "But travel freedom in Europe is such an important achievement that it should not be up for renegotiation."

The government was responding to a joint Franco-Italian letter to the European Commission, asking for the border checks to be restored in exceptional circumstances. Italy is having to deal with a massive influx of migrants who have fled North Africa amid the upheaval in the Arab World.

Many of the Tunisian migrants are ultimately heading to France, where they have friends and family. At the moment, they can travel across the Franco-Italian border with relatively few restrictions. France and Italy have appealed to the EU for help.

"We have to remember that Schengen is a bold European plan," German government spokesman Steffen Seibert said. "The German government wants to defend such a bold plan."

Seibert was responding to German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich who apparently thinks the system needs some "fine-tuning." Friedrich's press spokesman Jens Teschke said that under "exceptional circumstances" including mass illegal immigration, temporarily reinstating border controls may be possible

A map showing the Schengen countries in 1995, and in 2010
25 countries in Europe have signed the Schengen Accord

Greens also don't want change

The Greens in Brussels rejected a revision of the accord.

"A change to Schengen according to the mood of the moment is completely absurd," Green member of the European Parliament Rebecca Harms told the German daily Frankfurter Rundschau. She added that immigration policy had to be approached from a Europe-wide perspective.

"If the Italians can't manage it, their European partners have to step in," the German politican said.

Her Green party colleague in the German parliament, Claudia Roth, also warned against softening the Schengen accord.

A customs sign on the Swiss border
Germany doesn't want to restore tight border controlsImage: DPA

"Such measures drive the European idea into the wall," she said. She added that the refugees from North Africa should be taken in by all European countries, and offered further education. She said Germany should also accept more immigrants.

Friedrich's spokesman earlier said Italy had to handle the influx of migrants itself. Around 26,000 refugees have landed on the tiny Mediterranean island of Lampedusa in the past four months alone. Since the beginning of April, Italy has been handing out temporary travel permits to allow them to travel into other European countries under the Schengen system.

Italy has accused EU partners of abandoning it in the fight against economic immigration.

The Commission said Tuesday it was drawing up "precise conditions" under which states unhappy with the realities of borderless travel across the Schengen area may temporarily police internal frontiers once more.

However officials stressed there would be no return to routine border controls within Europe.

Author: Joanna Impey (AFP, AP, dpa)
Editor: Rob Turner