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French presidential candidate Sarkozy confident of support for Schengen reform

media Tunisian migrants with French and Italian protestors on Franco-Italian … AFP/Catherine Marciano

French president Nicolas Sarkozy’s announcement on Sunday that he will suspend France’s participation in the Schengen open borders agreement unless it is reformed by May 2013 has caused surprise in France but the idea is already actually under discussion in Brussels.

France, Italy and Germany all asked the European Commission to examine ways of reforming the Schengen accords at the onset of the Arab Spring, when large numbers of north Africans, particularly Tunisians, arrived in Italy and many subsequently moved on to France.

Brussels civil servants are likely to propose that Schengen countries would be able to re impose border controls in the event of a massive influx of illegal immigrants or if the country in question was unable to cope.

Under current rules, signatories to Schengen can only re impose border controls if there is a terrorist threat or if they are hosting a major international event such as a summit of world leaders or the Olympics.

Tougher controls could be re introduced on a temporary basis, for renewable periods of six months for example.

On Thursday, Austria’s interior minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner told her EU colleagues that the frontier between Schengen member Greece and Turkey, which is not in the European Union, was “open like a barn door”.

Sarkozy appears confident that he would have the backing of most EU countries, for the introduction of such reforms, amid concern that rules of the Schengen space, which began with France as a founder member back in 1985, need updating.

But Sarkozy’s decision to introduce into his election campaign the idea of changing a European Treaty (Schengen is incorporated in the Treaty of Amsterdam) is a risky one – he has until now been extremely critical of Socialist challenger François Hollande’s plan to re-negotiate the delicate fiscal pact agreed by nearly all EU countries after a bad-tempered meeting in December.

Sarkozy hopes that reforms to the Schengen rules will appear to those who might otherwise vote for the National Front and he is gambling that the wider French electorate will trade unrestricted passport-free travel within the Schengen space for tougher controls on those who enter the country.

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