FRANCE and Italy have proposed a reform of Europe’s open-borders treaty that would allow member states to re-impose internal frontier controls temporarily in case of a major influx of migrants.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi agreed on a letter outlining their demands to EU leaders at a summit in Rome following the arrival of thousands of migrants from Tunisia.

“We both believe that in exceptional circumstances there should be variations to the Schengen treaty,” Mr Berlusconi told reporters after the talks.

Mr Sarkozy said: “For the treaty to stay alive, it must be reformed.”

First signed in 1985 as a giant step towards European integration, the Schengen treaty opening passport-free travel to 400 million people in 25 nations is in the line of fire as divided EU nations squabble over immigration.

A planned reform of Schengen later this year should look at “the possibility of restoring internal border checks temporarily in cases of exceptional difficulty in managing common external borders,” the letter said.

The European Commission, the EU’s executive, said it was drawing up “precise conditions” under which states could suspend the rules of the treaty.

Spokesman Olivier Bailly said reinstating border patrols between European Union states that are part of the treaty would be a “last resort”.

“You would have to leave the EU to suspend Schengen,” he said.

The current rules only allow controls to be reintroduced only when there is a “grave threat to the public order or internal security” of an EU state.

The letter also called for a reinforcement of the EU’s Warsaw-based border agency Frontex and for agreements on immigration between the European Union and states in the southern Mediterranean that will allow for deportations.

Paris has accused Rome of abusing the Schengen pact by issuing temporary residence permits and travel documents to migrants fleeing North Africa in the knowledge that many among the French-speaking Tunisians want to go to France.

France has close ties to former colony Tunisia, and many would-be migrants among the more than 20,000 Tunisians given papers by Italy have friends and relatives in French cities and have been streaming across the border.

Both Mr Berlusconi and Mr Sarkozy – who faces a presidential election in a year’s time – are under right-wing pressure on immigration at a time in which unrest in North Africa has displaced thousands of people around the Mediterranean.

Italy has complained for weeks of being left alone to cope with the arrival of a total of nearly 30,000 migrants from North Africa so far this year, some fleeing the conflict in Libya, the majority economic refugees from Tunisia.

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