France-Italy border row 'shameful race to the bottom'
A Brussels-based think-tank has slammed the way in which France and Italy are dealing with immigrants fleeing unrest in Northern Africa, labelling their actions a "shameful race to the bottom".
In a policy paper called 'A Race Against Solidarity,' the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS) assesses the "difficulties" faced by Paris and Rome in handling boat people coming from North Africa.
Some 20,000 migrants, mainly Tunisians, have arrived on the Italian island of Lampedusa following the Arab revolutions, creating unprecedented tensions between Rome and neighbouring country France, where many of the migrants have been heading.
The policy paper's authors, Sergio Carrera, Elspeth Guild, Massimo Merlino and Joanna Parkin, describe the measures taken by both countries to deal with the crisis as a "shameful race to the bottom".
The paper expresses "doubts" as to whether the re-introduction of internal border controls by France is compatible with the Schengen agreement on freedom to travel across EU borders.
It also argues that temporary visas issued by Italy to Tunisian migrants have encouraged illegal immigration to countries such as France.
"The actions of both countries raise several concerns from the viewpoint of EU law and their obligations under the Schengen Borders Code (SBC)," the authors write.
"The kinds of border check that have been carried out appear to us to be disproportionate and exaggerated when considering the actual nature of the events," their paper further states.
The French practices "send a clear message concerning the lack of solidarity" with populations of North African states in the midst of democratic reform or war, the paper states.
"The targeting of the border checks against this particular group of people is problematic in relation to the principle of non-discrimination on the basis of ethnic origin and nationality," the authors write.
The CEPS paper advocates that "freedom of movement and labour immigration should not be seen as 'a burden to share' for the EU and its member states, but rather as an opportunity for all the parties involved". The European Commission is urged to "react more strongly and on time".
Regarding France and Italy's attempts to change the text of the Schengen agreement, the authors categorically state that the current version of the legislation "must not be revised following the nationalistic and opportunistic goals expressed by the French and Italian governments".
In particular, allowing member countries to re-introduce internal border checks amounts to contravening the basic principle of the rule of law, and more generally, the EU treaties, the researchers write.
"Such legislative reform would also constitute a major step backwards in European integration, the very foundations of Schengen and the principle of free movement, which has been correctly considered one of the 'great success stories of the EU'," the paper adds.
It would also represent a strengthening of 'intergovernmentalism' in an area that currently falls under EU competence, the CEPS paper warns.
Last February, Italy declared a humanitarian emergency on the Mediterranean island of Lampedusa after 4,000 people had arrived there by boat from Tunisia following a popular revolt that ousted the president.
Since then, civil war in Libya has added to the immigration pressure on Lampedusa, where an estimated 20,000 immigrants have arrived since the beginning of the 'jasmine revolutions'.
In April 2011, France reintroduced internal border checks with Italy to restrict the mobility of North African immigrants who hold temporary residence permits issued by Italy and who have entered the EU from Tunisia as a result of revolutions and war in the southern Mediterranean region.
France's move caused a diplomatic row between the two countries, as well as reactions by other EU member states and at EU level.