Paris: France called on Friday for an upgrade of Europe's Schengen visa-free pact, calling the system flawed as it battles to stem an influx of migrants from Tunisia and Libya through Italy.
"The governance of Schengen is failing. It seems there is a need to reflect on a mechanism that will allow, in case of a systemic failure of an external (EU) border, to intervene through a provisional suspension, until such time as the weakness is corrected," the French presidency said.
The European Commission, the EU executive, meanwhile, pointed out in Brussels that Schengen border controls could be reinstated "very temporarily, and if duly justified".
The Schengen Agreement does not preclude suspension, but requires that only a "grave threat to the public order or internal security" could "exceptionally" justify the reintroduction of border controls for a maximum of 30 days.
This period could be extended if the threat persisted.
France has accused Italy of abusing the Schengen pact by issuing temporary residence permits and travel documents to migrants fleeing North Africa in the knowledge that many among the French-speaking Tunisians are headed for France.
France has close ties to Tunisia, one of its former colonies, and many would-be migrants have friends and relatives in French cities.
More than 20,000 Tunisian migrants have arrived on Italian shores from Tunisia, complaining that a January revolution that toppled president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali has failed to bring economic progress to their homeland.
Italy has given them residence permits for six months, which allows them to travel freely in the Schengen zone.
A source in the French presidency said the current system was "weak: every country surveys its external border, but once inside, anyone can move freely from one country to another in the Schengen area.”
"If we want to save Schengen and emerge from the crisis ... it is necessary to reinforce the governance of Schengen, thus to equip it with tools," the source said.
This may include reinforcing Frontex, a European border control agency.
But for now, "French authorities have informed the (European) Commission that they have no intention to demand the reintroduction of border controls," Michele Cercone, a spokesman for the executive body's external affairs commissioner, Cecilia Malmstrom, said on Friday.
Malmstrom herself was mulling a reform of the Schengen system, which she hoped to propose at the beginning of next month, the spokesman said.
On Sunday, in response to a protest by activists who support Tunisian migrants, French officials blocked all trains from Italy for the day -- drawing a sharp response from Rome, which alleged EU law was broken.
French Interior Minister Claude Gueant insisted that Paris had respected "in letter and spirit" the Schengen pact.
However, as the first country of arrival, Italy was responsible for managing the migrants, who must show they have the financial resources to stay in the second country.
In the absence of such resources, "we will return these people to Italy," said Gueant.
First Published: Saturday, April 23, 2011, 09:20