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European Union Looking to Control Illegal Immigration

French far-right National Front party demonstrators hold banners reading 'stop uncontrolled immigration', during protests against Italian government's immigration policy, on the French side of the border between France and Italy, in Menton (File Photo - A

The European Union may be moving towards reintroducing national border controls in order to regulate illegal immigration.

More than 15 years ago a group of seven European countries started what is called the Schengen Zone, where travel between nations is unchecked. Over time it has expanded to 22 countries. But the tide may be turning.

The European Union Commission has put forward a plan to reinstate border controls in “exceptional circumstances”.

EU Commissioner for Home Affairs Cecilia Malmstrom emphasized the importance of the free-travel zone.

"Schengen is a fantastic achievement that we have achieved in the European Union and we should protect it and defend it," said Malmstrom.

But Malstrom said migration has to be properly managed and weaknesses in the system need to be fixed in order to make it stronger.

“We will look at a possible introduction of a suspension mechanism on a very strict conditions, monitored on a European level," added Malstrom.

The move comes as anti-immigration sentiment is sweeping across Europe. Electorates and politicians alike are raising fears about immigrants taking jobs and hoarding social services.

That attitude has been simmering for some time, but recent uprisings in North Africa have brought the situation to a head. About 25,000 people, mostly from Tunisia, sought safety in Europe. They went to Italy first and from there some went to France - the land of their mother tongue.

France and Italy say the burden is too high, although the number is only 10 percent of annual immigration to the European Union and pales in comparison to the 600,000 Libyans who have fled to Egypt and Tunisia.

"At the moment it is kind of a knee-jerk reaction to an external crisis," said Jan-Hinrik Meyer-Sahling, a Europe expert at Britain’s University of Nottingham. "What we have here, there is an underlining sentiment that is anti-immigrant in Europe and the crisis at the moment makes the issue much more salient."

He says the European Union is going through growing pains. But, as in other crises, it should come out of the situation strengthened and with EU countries working together to mend weak spots in the system.

Freedom of movement, he says, is fundamental to the European Union and will not be cast aside.

“I believe that what we may see is temporary restrictions but in the end the importance of the freedom of movement is too high, it is too fundamental an issue for the identity of the European Union as a political system, so that I suspect that if there will be changes then these changes will be only temporary,” said Meyer-Sahling.

But with anti-immigration feelings felt across Europe, some analysts say the shift may have more longevity. A recent survey by the research group Transatlantic Trends showed that majorities across the European Union want their national governments, not the broader European Union, to control who enters their country and at what rate.

The temporary plan proposed by the EU commission this week will be discussed at a meeting of ministers later this month.