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France, Italy call for reform on border treaty

ROME, Apr 27 – France and Italy issued a joint call on Tuesday for a reform of the European Union\’s visa-free treaty that would allow EU member states to re-impose internal border controls more easily.

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," Berlusconi told reporters after the meeting, as Sarkozy said a joint letter had been sent to EU leaders.

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.

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.

"Tensions have never been so high," Italy\’s Corriere della Sera daily said.

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 Berlusconi and 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.

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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.

"Nothing wound be more short-sighted, more petty or detrimental than every European Union member state looking in on itself," Italian President Giorgio Napolitano said, evoking "a risk of a desperate flow of immigration".

The two leaders also called for an end to the "violent repression" against peaceful protests in Syria, with Sarkozy saying that any type of foreign intervention there would have to be sanctioned by the UN Security Council.

They also talked about the situation in Libya after Italy on Monday announced it would participate in NATO air strikes against the regime after initial reluctance due to Italy\’s colonial history in the country.

Rome is also preparing to host a meeting of an international contact group on Libya early next month that is expected to outline financial and material assistance measures for the opposition to embattled leader Moamer Kadhafi.

The two leaders also debated the thorny issue of recent inroads by French companies into the Italian economy with a string of takeover moves, which have raised nationalist sentiment and fears of a French monopoly.

Earlier on Tuesday, French dairy giant Lactalis launched a 3.4 billion euro ($4.9 billion) takeover bid for Italy\’s Parmalat, saying the two companies combined would create the biggest dairy products company in the world.

Also on Tuesday, Sarkozy on Tuesday offered his backing for Italian central bank governor Mario Draghi\’s bid to replace France\’s Jean-Claude Trichet as head of the European Central Bank later this year.

"We support the candidature of an Italian to lead the ECB… He is a person of high quality," Sarkozy said.

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