MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:
To Europe now, where heads of state have put on a happy unified face at the G8 Summit in France. But lately, EU leaders have been in crisis mode: The debt problems of several states continue to shake the Euro, that's the common currency of 17 nations. Then, there's the crisis in Libya, which sparked new tensions when Germany opted out of NATO's military operation. And as if that were not enough, France and Italy have been sparring over immigration in a way that seems to question the fundamental notion of a borderless Europe. NPR's Eric Westervelt has our story.
ERIC WESTERVELT: The revolutions in North Africa have put enormous strain on a cornerstone of European integration: the free movement of people and commerce in 25 European states under what's known as the Schengen Agreement.
France reinstated long-abolished checks along its border with Italy after waves of undocumented migrants arrived from Tunisia and Libya. France sent hundreds of migrants back to Italy, which prompted Rome to issue temporary travel documents to thousands of refugees. The border row sparked outrage with some European Union leaders. Belgian MP Guy Verhofstadt is president of the EU parliamentary bloc of Liberals and Democrats.
Mr. GUY VERHOFSTADT (European Union Parliament): It was a ping-pong game by two governments, by Berlusconi and Sarkozy, on the back of refugees were in fact in trouble. A game that has been disastrous for Schengen, because by reintroducing internal border checks it contradicts the whole essence of the union and the basic principle of the treaties.
WESTERVELT: France and Italy called a truce in their border fight, and forcefully jointly called for a review of the agreement which created Europe's borderless world. But now Denmark says it plans to unilaterally introduce enhanced border controls - including more customs officers, spot checks, and video surveillance - as part of a coalition deal with the right-wing Danish People's Party. Soren Pind with the ruling center right Venstre party is Denmark's Minister of Integration and Immigration.
Mr. SOREN PIND (Denmark's Minister of Integration and Immigration): We don't want to go back to the times where you had to show your passport. But what we do want to is to combat drug trade, trafficking - any kind, and that sort of criminal activity. And if that is done by an increased custom activity, where you randomly work your way through without stopping everyone, then I think that's fine.
Minister Pind insists Denmark's plans to boost customs and border checks are in full compliance with the Schengen agreement. But the European Union's top official, Jose Manuel Barosso, told the Danes the EU had serious doubts about whether the border plan was legal. The EU also warned that if needed, if would, quote, "use the tools at its disposal to guarantee the respect of EU law."
Europeans began to question whether a borderless Europe was starting to come undone. Marlene Wind is director of the Centre for European Politics at the University of Copenhagen. She says Denmark's plan is the ruling party's pay-back to the Euro-skeptic, anti-immigration Danish People's party. Wind says unfortunately it's fed the impression that Denmark today wants to close its gates to the outside world.
Ms. MARLENE WIND (Director of the Center for European Politics, University of Copenhagen): It's this whole scare tactic that the open borders will - people -there will be an influx of immigrants, of criminals, of Gypsies. This is something that they use to appeal to the fear and to the lowest common denominator among these voters. And I think it's pathetic, to be quite frank.
WESTERVELT: The Schengen agreement allows for states to temporarily re-impose border controls - as a last resort - under extraordinary circumstances to ensure public order. But European leaders want clarity on what that really means and whether an influx of migrants constitutes a border crisis. The EU has agreed to take up the issue at a summit in Brussels next month.
Eric Westervelt, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.