The European Commission has proposed allowing countries in the Schengen area to reintroduce national border controls in exceptional circumstances.
The proposed changes to the rules on Schengen -- the visa-free zone over much of continental Europe -- come in response to an influx of thousands of immigrants fleeing unrest in North Africa.
The disappearance of border controls inside the European Union has been one of the most potent symbols of closer European integration in recent years.
EU Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom, presenting the proposals today, said any reintroduction of internal border controls would be limited and temporary.
"We will look at a possible introduction of a suspension mechanism under very strict conditions monitored on a European level," she said.
The proposal would jeopardize the cornerstone of the Schengen Area, which guarantees free movement of people between the vast majority of the EU’s member states. 'Limited In Time'
The commission has not yet defined under what circumstances border checks between member states would be considered, but Malmstrom was adamant that the scope should be limited.
"I think it is very important not to undermine the whole idea of Schengen, that it is not done unilaterally, and that it is based on very well-defined criteria that are limited in time and that there is a European decision around this," she said. "Otherwise, I think we will risk the whole system."
A policeman guards immigrants from Tunisia, waiting to be transferred off the island of Lampedusa.
Schengen nations, which include all EU member states apart from Bulgaria, Ireland, Romania, and the United Kingdom, have previously had the right to impose border checks under certain circumstances, but this has mainly been used in connection to major events such as football championships and royal weddings.
Today’s announcement is the first attempt to change the rules because of outside immigration and comes as a direct response to the fears of the EU’s southern member states.
The move comes after a request last week from French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to change some of the Schengen rules.
The countries have been trading insults after France set up checks on its border to Italy, preventing refugees from Tunisia from entering.
Italy had issued temporary residence permits to many of those who arrived from North Africa in recent months, allowing them to move freely within the Schengen zone. Beefing Up
Some 25.000 people have so far come to Europe fleeing the upheavals in North Africa, landing mainly on the southern Italian island of Lampedusa and on Malta.
Even though this number is relatively small compared to the 650,000 people who have fled the violence in Libya, both Italy and Malta are bracing themselves for a much bigger influx over the summer and have called on other EU member states to show solidarity.
Brussels at the same time is also proposing ways to improve protection of the EU’s external borders -- by beefing up its border agency, Frontex, and the possible creation of a European system of borders guards.
EU’s justice and home affairs ministers will meet in Brussels on May 12 to further discuss the proposals. The meeting is likely to see tension between southern and northern EU member states about the burden-sharing of immigration. The Mediterranean member states, spearheaded by Greece, have for a long time sought to change the bloc’s Dublin II regulation, which assigns the processing of immigrants to the country in which they first arrive.