Europe set to overhaul visa-free travel zone

European Union leaders are expected to allow for the temporary reintroduction of border controls in the event of a “truly critical” spike in illegal immigration, a move that amounts to an overhaul of the bloc’s passport-free Schengen travel zone.

Diplomats involved in preparing this week’s EU summit say the leaders will endorse the idea of a Schengen suspension mechanism, first mooted by Italy and France this spring as migrants fleeing the turmoil in north Africa streamed across the Mediterranean.

But the rules will strictly limit the circumstances in which intra-European borders can be resurrected – an attempt to preclude the sort of unilateral reintroduction of border controls unveiled by France and Denmark in recent months.

A draft of the planned measures seen by the Financial Times says countries facing spikes in migration will first have to be offered technical assistance from the EU – as well as an intervention by Frontex, its border management agency – to plug gaps in their external frontiers before they can exclude themselves from Schengen.

Furthermore, the EU legislation required to reintroduce temporary borders is unlikely to come into effect before the end of the year, and could be delayed longer, insiders say. Proposals by the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, to tackle the issue have been pushed back to the autumn.

European diplomats involved in negotiations about the overhaul insisted the measures were a significant watering down of proposals by some member states for more stringent controls to internal borders, an issue that has become intensely politicised in recent weeks amid continuing waves of arrivals from Tunisia and Libya.

But the measures still open the door to new limits on internal movement, the first since passport-free travel came into force in 1995.

Whereas there is broad agreement that countries should not be allowed to impose border controls on fellow Schengen members unilaterally, it is yet to be decided whether such a decision will be taken collectively by member states, or by the European Commission in Brussels.

That debate comes amid a wider discussion about how to deal with illegal immigration into Europe. Countries on the front lines of land-and-sea migration routes, such as Italy and Malta, have called for more EU involvement and a mechanism to resettle migrants in other countries in the bloc.

Northern European countries such as Sweden and Germany insist the numbers of new arrivals from north Africa – at around 40,000 since the start of the year – hardly constitute a crisis for larger EU countries such as Italy and point to their own struggles with migrants.

European negotiators said they had slowed the push for more stringent measures to be debated at the upcoming summit in a bid to reduce tensions.

“After some quite tense weeks where attacking Schengen became de rigueur, the tone of the discussion is less tense now,” said one national diplomat involved in the talks.

“There is still a feeling that Schengen must be reformed, but without the urgency of a few weeks ago.”

Officials said some of the political pressure had eased following Italian local elections in May, which had included hardline rhetoric from its anti-immigrant Northern League party, as well as the resolution of a political crisis in Denmark prompted by the far-right People’s party.

But they warned that the continuing flow of migrants from north Africa – now mainly sub-Saharan Africans departing from Libya – could renew the tensions seen earlier in the spring, when Italy and France called on the Commission to reform the Schengen agreement.

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