BRUSSELS — A bitter dispute over a flood of North African immigrants is widening divisions among some of Europe’s most powerful nations and adding to strains on the long-held dream of a united Europe.
Since January, an estimated 26,000 Tunisians have fled unrest in their country for the shores of Italy, where officials say the burden of caring for these immigrants should be shared by the 27-nation European Union.
The Italians have taken the unusual step of issuing many of the Tunisians temporary residence permits and say that those papers allow the immigrants to go anywhere in a 25-nation zone that permits legal European residents to cross borders without a visa.
The Italian stance has infuriated Germany and France, the former colonial power where many of the Tunisians want to reunite with relatives, friends and co-workers.
Neither side is backing down, tensions are rising, and French police on Sunday stopped a train carrying Tunisian immigrants from Italy at the border. It was an unprecedented affront to Europe’s cherished vision of visa-free travel in a united continent where in many places there is nothing to indicate a national border beyond a roadside welcome sign.
There was a large French border police presence on the Italian frontier Monday and officers were checking the passports of all Tunisians passing through, and their ability to support themselves.
In Germany, separated from Italy by Austria and Switzerland, Interior Ministry spokesman Jens Teschke said there would be “more intensive observation” of people entering the country, though he would not give specifics. He said there were still no formal controls on borders that have been visa-free.
The state interior ministry in Bavaria, which contains all of Germany’s border with Austria, said that a system of spot checks near the borders that has been in place since the visa-free zone started has been stepped up somewhat, leading to more checks on roads and train stations within some 20 miles of the border.
“It’s a bit easy for Italy to be generous with other people’s territory,” said Christian Estrosi, the mayor of the French city of Nice, near the Italian border, and a prominent member of President Nicolas Sarkozy’s conservative UMP party. “What are the consequences of this? Italy, in the name of the EU, has made an incredible offer of hope” to North African immigrants. “This is not acceptable.”