France could quit EU open borders deal because of illegal immigration, warns Sarkozy
French president Nicolas Sarkozy yesterday threatened to wreck the European free travel zone unless there is a new pact to cut down on illegal immigration.
His warning in an election campaign speech threw a question mark over the future of the Schengen zone, regarded by Brussels as the EU’s second most important achievement after the single currency.
The 25 Schengen countries allow travellers to pass each other’s borders without checks or the need for visas.
But a wave of immigrants who began arriving in Italy and southern Europe following the Arab Spring last year has put the 27-year-old zone under unprecedented pressure.
A collapse of the Schengen agreement would be a blow to EU prestige almost as great as the downfall of the euro, the future of which remains in doubt as Greece struggles to re-arrange its debts.
However, it would ease the pressure on Britain because it would be much harder for migrants without the correct papers to reach the French port of Calais, or other European air and sea ports with regular connections to the UK.
President Sarkozy spoke at a rally in Paris at which he said that unchecked immigration would ruin Europe’s ability to integrate new arrivals and undermine social welfare systems that are designed to provide a safety net for the disadvantaged.
He declared: ‘It is urgent because we cannot accept being subjected to the shortcomings of Europe’s external borders.
Reform of the immigration system is the ‘only way to avoid the implosion of Europe’, he added.
Mr Sarkozy said: ‘But if I note within the next 12 months that no serious progress has been made in this direction, then France will suspend its participation in the Schengen accords until these negotiations are completed.’
The speech comes at a time when the president is facing a difficult battle for re-election.
He has been under attack from the far-right National Front party and is anxious to present a strong line on immigration.