Passport-free travel across the “Schengen” area, which does not include Britain or Ireland, has come under unprecedented pressure after Italy last month gave residence permits to over 25,000 Arab migrants allowing them unfettered access to rest of the EU.
France, the likely destination of the mainly French-speaking Tunisian immigrants, responded by temporarily closing a key railway frontier with Italy and by introducing tough extra checks for papers on immigrants.
“It may be necessary to foresee the temporary reintroduction of limited internal border controls under very exceptional circumstances,” said Cecilia Malmstroem, the EU’s internal affairs commissioner.
“The European Commission feels it should be a community mechanism not unilateral and there should be very clear conditions.”
The Swedish commissioner insisted that even though border controls might be temporarily coming back to deal with a wave of immigrants from North Africa, it would not become the norm over the next few years.
“The free movement of people across European borders is a major achievement which must not be reversed,” she insisted.
The proposals will be submitted to an emergency meeting of EU interior ministers on May 12 before what are expected to be bad tempered discussions on immigration between European leaders at a Brussels summit on June 24.
EU governments are unlikely to agree to the commission’s rethink because it will give Brussels the power to decide which circumstances are “exceptional”, removing the decision to reintroduce border controls from national capitals.
The proposals suggest that the EU should step in “to handle situations where either a member state is not fulfilling its obligations to control its section of the external border, or where a particular portion of the external border comes under unexpected and heavy pressure due to external events”.
“We are seeing exceptional events across the Mediterranean,” said the commissioner.
But Mrs Malmstroem on Wednesday refused to say whether the influx of Arabs into Italy, following political unrest in Tunisia and Libya, would trigger special measures.
The police in Norway, a member of the Schengen zone even though it is not an EU member, on Wednesday complained that passport-free travel had led to a crime wave in Nordic countries.
“Open borders in Europe have led to a situation where 80 per cent of crimes committed in Norway and other Nordic states are carried out by criminals who are either from the Baltic states or are strongly linked to the organised crime in the Baltic states,” said Egil Haaland, the president of the Norwegian police association.
“Open borders have become a big problem for us.”