Nicolas Sarkozy is holding emergency talks in Rome with Silvio Berlusconi after a row over Tunisian refugees threatened to spiral out of control and lead to the reintroduction of French border controls.
The Italian prime minister called the meeting after his decision to give more than 25,000 Tunisian refugees residence permits caused the worst border crisis since the EU’s 1995 Schengen Treaty.
The French president, who will face a challenge from the anti-immigrant far-Right during elections next year, has responded furiously and criticised “flawed” EU rules that have let the migrants into France. The French sparked a major diplomatic incident last week after closing the rail border with Italy at Ventimiglia, citing risks of disturbances to public order to refuse entry to trains carrying Tunisian migrants.
France has accused Italy of violating the EU’s “Schengen” free movement rules by giving the Arab migrants, who are mainly French-speaking, permits and encouraging them to travel to France.
Periodic border checks with Italy have been reinstated and several hundred Tunisians, bearing the residence permits, have been sent back to Italy.
Mr Berlusconi will argue that he gave the Tunisians permits after the EU refused to activate a refugee burden-sharing scheme when Italy faced an influx of Arabs fleeing regional conflict.
He has accused the EU of failing to help Italy and even questioned the value of belonging to the Union.
President Sarkozy will accuse him of deliberately issuing the immigrants with permits, releasing them from detention centres and directing them towards France; even buying their train tickets.
Franco Frattini, Italy’s foreign minister, has said that Rome will accept a review of Schengen, including temporary French border controls, in return for EU cash to help it deal with Arab migrants.
“Schengen needs a check-up. All treaties age, inevitably,” he said. “A review is needed to adapt this agreement a rapidly changing world.”
Italy and France will also demand a £8.8billion European aid package for North Africa to stem the influx of migrants by helping with the regional transition to democracy.
The proposals will be debated by the European Commission on May 4 and then discussed 11 days later at a meeting of EU interior ministers.
But European diplomats are concerned that Italian resentment goes deeper than the refugee crisis. Italy has been angered over France taking the lead on Libya by launching military action and by recognising the Libyan rebels.
Mr Berlusconi, a close ally of Muammar Gaddafi, was wounded not to have been consulted over the decisions affecting Italy’s region and has refused to allow Italian fighters to take part in Nato bombing raids over Libya.
In France, anger over immigration has boosted the far-Right National Front party ahead of elections next year. Paris is calling for reform of Schengen to make it easier to reinstate controls if any further external crises trigger a flood of migrants. The treaty already allows the 25 member states to temporarily suspend border-free travel for security reasons.
“We must draw the lessons of this crisis together,” said Laurent Wauquiez, France’s secretary of state for European affairs.