When the Tunisian masses rose up against their corrupt government earlier this year, leaders across Europe stood up to applaud them. But when 30,000 of those same Tunisians began showing up as refugees at Italian and Maltese ports soon afterward, the response was not quite so enthusiastic.
The first country to act was France, which sent police onto trains running between Italy and France to check the identity cards of all immigrants, and to ask whether they had return tickets - all done, they explained, so as to understand "who was who" and to ensure "public order" was maintained at home.
And now Denmark has also made a controversial move - announcing last week that it would reintroduce document checks at its borders with Germany and Sweden, in an effort to monitor who might be coming in.
This is just the tip of the iceberg: As the influx of Tunisians and Libyans into Europe grows, a debate has begun about a possible need to overhaul the 1985 Schengen Agreement, which allows free border crossing between 25 countries. Most EU members (with the exception of the UK, Ireland, Cyprus, Bulgaria and Romania ) are part of this agreement, together with non-EU members Norway, Iceland and Switzerland. All told, over 400 million people live within the Schengen area, which covers more than four million square kilometers.
Late last week, EU Justice and Home Affairs ministers met in Brussels to interpret the wording of a clause in the agreement, which allows member states to temporarily reinstate internal border controls within the Schengen area when and where it's warranted by "a threat to public order."
In the past, this clause has been used - with the permission of the EU Commission - to prevent, for example, violent soccer hooligans from traveling to international matches. But now, some countries are asking for it to be interpreted in such a way as to help them keep the wave of unwanted immigrants out on a permanent basis.
Meanwhile, the unilateral French and Danish moves - made without any changes to the Schengen Agreement being discussed - have prompted strong reactions in Europe, and tensions are rising. It is unacceptable, stressed Martin Schulz, chairman of the Socialist Group in the European Parliament, for "any government to suspend the basic freedoms of European citizens so quickly."
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