Paris crowed victory in its month-long immigration row with Italy when the European Union's Home Affairs Commissioner declared France had a right to temporarily halt a rail link between the two countries.
Several trains carrying human rights activists and Tunisian migrants holding three-month residence permits issued by Italy were stopped at the border by French police on the grounds there was concern for “public order”. “It was a temporary, unique interruption due to public order. The traffic is flowing normally now. Apparently they had the right to do this,” said Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom.
French authorities said the trains entering France from Italy carried hundreds of illegal Tunisian migrants without valid papers or the ability to support themselves. The European Commission has repeatedly said certain conditions must be met for migrants with permits to go to other Schengen countries, including the possession of valid travel documents and the ability to live without financial help from the state.
The Schengen zone that includes countries like Spain, France, Italy, Austria Germany and several others allows immigrants with valid “Schengen” visas or resident permits to circulate freely in the Schengen zone.
Since January, Italy has seen a steady influx of Tunisian and Libyan refugees fleeing instability in their homelands, landing on the tiny Mediterranean island of Lampedusa. Italy's appeals for help went unheeded by its EU partners. Italian Interior Minister Roberto Maroni then hit upon the idea of giving the over 20,000 migrants three-month temporary residence permits which he claimed would allow them to circulate through the Schengen zone and leave Italy for other EU nations. France refused to honour those permits declaring them illegal. Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini described the blocking of the trains “illegal” and instructed the Italian Ambassador to France to lodge a protest.
But a spokesman for the French Foreign Ministry, Bernard Valero, said on Monday that the European Commission's statements indicated “the decisions taken by France respect European rules.”
France argues that the Tunisians are economic migrants, who would not typically qualify to stay in the EU, and has warned that the permits alone may not be enough to guarantee them access to France.
Belgium on Sunday also announced it had begun stepping up border controls at its airports and echoed France's position that migrants must be able to show sufficient financial resources before being admitted.