The European Commission threw its weight behind France’s decision temporarily to shut its borders to trains carrying African migrants from Italy, saying it did not breach European Union rules.
In a row that signalled a deepening conflict in the EU over its response to the refugee crisis in North Africa, Italy has accused Paris of contravening the bloc’s law on free movement of people when it blocked the Ventimiglia-Menton border.
But the bloc’s home affairs chief, Cecilia Malmstrom, said she was satisfied with the French explanation that the weekend disruption — aimed at holding back migrants from entering France — was necessary to maintain public order, Reuters reports.
“Apparently, they had the right to do that,” she told a news briefing.
Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini told the daily La Repubblica in comments published on Monday that France had crossed the line and accused Paris of overstepping the bloc’s Schengen treaty on border-free travel, a fundamental EU law.
“If the situation persists, we would save time by just saying that we are changing our minds about free circulation, which is one of the fundamental principles of the Union,” he said. “But we are sure that France will explain.”
During a visit to Bulgaria, French Interior Minister Claude Gueant snapped back, saying Paris had followed the rules.
“We applied the letter and the spirit of the Schengen agreement,” Gueant said.
The spat over migrants from Italy is a prelude to what will likely turn into an acrimonious debate in the coming weeks over how the EU should tackle the pressure of immigration from North Africa after revolts there punctured borders facing Europe.
Fuelling the row are demands by Italy that other EU governments help it cope with 26,000 migrants who have arrived on its shores so far this year after fleeing violence in Libya and unrest in Tunisia and Egypt.
The demands, and Rome’s decision to issue the migrants with temporary permits to travel across the bloc, have created a backlash against Italy as other governments fret about appearing too lenient at a time of growing hostility by voters to newcomers in Europe.
Many EU capitals are worried that offering shelter to too many migrants will encourage more to attempt illegal entry to Europe, but pressure to admit more migrants will likely rise.
Aid agencies say thousands more may still head north across the Mediterranean Sea, either directly from Libya or through Tunisia and Egypt, as long as fighting between Muammar Gaddafi and Libyan rebels continues.
To manage the issue, The European Commission is trying to persuade EU governments to offer travel and trade incentives to authorities in Tunis and Cairo to secure their borders. But many may be reluctant to give too much ground for long-term gains.
Heads of EU states are due to discuss proposals at a summit in June, but observers say concrete solutions are unlikely to emerge, threatening to complicate relations with new governments in Tunisia and Egypt.
France is not alone in its efforts to keep African migrants from Italy at bay. Tunisians flying into Belgium will have to prove they have at least 10,000 euros (8,820.09 pounds) per couple if travelling on temporary papers issued by Italy.
“If they come they have a three-month visa, which is a tourism one, so Belgium has the right to .. check if the objective of their visit is indeed tourism,” said a spokesman for Belgium’s asylum minister Melchior Wathelet.
Austria, which like France borders Italy, is also looking for ways to stop migrants. And Britain has just agreed to cap the number of skilled workers — from anywhere outside the EU — it takes in, highlighting a wider EU trend towards tightening borders in the wake of the global financial crisis.
Under EU rules, governments can issue residence permits to non-EU citizens, but migrants have to have travel documents and means to support themselves if they want to enter other states.
An EU government can also conduct sporadic border controls, and can briefly re-instate full borders, to aid public security.