x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Sarkozy, Berlusconi agree changes needed to stem migrant flow

The French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, and the Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, agree that an open-border treaty needs to be amended so the flow of North African migrants can be better controlled.

Nice, France // The leaders of France and Italy buried their differences yesterday and called for changes to European law on free movement between countries to stem the flow of migrants from North Africa.

The French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, and the Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, agreed in talks in Rome that the Schengen open-border treaty needed to be amended if it was to survive.

France has been alarmed by Italy's decision to issue temporary visas, granting "roaming rights" under the Schengen pact, to most of the 26,000 people thought to have crossed the Mediterranean since January. Most are Tunisians but Libyans have also begun heading for Italy to escape civil war at home.

French actions, especially in blocking trains at Ventimiglia, on the France-Italian border 40 kilometres east of Nice, caused dismay in Rome.

The dispute boiled down to the mutual unwillingness of both countries to accept an influx of migrants at a time when public opinion is strongly against large-scale immigration.

Mr Sarkozy and Mr Berlusconi stressed that they had no wish to abandon Schengen, to which most European Union nations plus Switzerland, Norway and Iceland are signatories.

But both agreed the treaty had to be adaptable to events such as the turmoil in North Africa that has led thousands to seek new lives in Europe. "We both believe that in exceptional circumstances there should be variations to the treaty," said Mr Berlusconi.

The two leaders have urged the European Commission to examine how to inject such flexibility into an agreement that otherwise allows people to move between countries with a minimum of controls. They also want the right to impose border controls temporarily, and a "principle of solidarity" to ease the burden on European states with Mediterranean seaboards in dealing with mass immigration.

The measures sought by the two countries will be discussed when the EU council of ministers meets in June. In the meantime, France and Italy will press Tunisia to dissuade its citizens from trying to reach Europe.

Many of the Tunisians who have fled their country head for the Italian island of Lampedusa, 120km from the Tunisian coast. The crossing can be arduous, with traffickers often packing migrants into small boats and charging them up to €1,000 (Dh5,368) each. An unknown number of migrants have drowned.

France and Italy have agreed to mount sea and air patrols to try to halt the flow. But tensions between the countries grew when France said it would send back to Italy any migrants, even in possession of Italian-issued papers, if they were unable to prove they could support themselves.

But the Rome summit ended in a renewed spirit of cooperation.

Mr Sarkozy praised Italy's announcement that its military aircraft would join Nato's air strikes to enforce the UN-sanctioned no-fly zone over Libya and protect Libyan citizens from Col Muammar Qaddafi's forces.

The French president alluded to Italy's former role as Libyan's colonial power and said that, in the light of their close historical connection, it defied belief that Italy would not be involved in helping the international coalition working "to allow Libyans to live in freedom after 41 years of dictatorship".

To no small extent, both leaders were addressing unsettled domestic electorates, anxious to appear tough on the core issue that immigration has become to each country.

Mr Berlusconi has had to grapple with a succession of legal battles, in which he has been accused of wrongdoing from fraud to sexual misconduct with young prostitutes, while Mr Sarkozy's opinion poll ratings are consistently low.

With elections a year away, the president travelled to Rome yesterday in the knowledge that another poll had suggested that while he would reach the decisive second round, he would then lose to whichever candidate the socialists had fielded.

Mr Sarkozy and Mr Berlusconi made a joint call for moderation on "all sides" involved in unrest in Syria, and for an end by the authorities in Damascus to "the violent repression of what are peaceful demonstrations".

Mr Berlusconi described the talks as "very, very positive" and will have been further impressed that Mr Sarkozy pledged his support for the bid by Mario Draghi, governor of the Bank of Italy, to succeed Jean-Claude Trichet as head of the European Central Bank later this year.