France has started blocking trains from Italy to prevent the flood of refugees from Libya and Tunisia from crossing the frontier and is seeking a suspension of the Schengen process, which was supposed to scrap passport checks and customs offices across the EU's internal borders.
The Schengen system, named after a tiny village in Luxembourg where the passport-free deal was reached within sight of the French and German, has never been fully operation; Britain and Ireland, citing their island status and concerns about terrorism, declined to join.
But the scrapping of internal borders was an important symbol of the EU dream. Its wobbling at the new threat of mass immigration from North Africa, with Austria, Germany and Belgium also "increasing vigilance" on their borders and at airports, has worried bureaucrats in Brussels.
Asked if this portends the end of the Schengen system, EU Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom said: "We will discuss this at the councils in May and June and it's always important to see if there are complaints and how we can solve them. But is this the end of Schengen? No, absolutely not. It would be very dangerous if it was, Schengen is one of the fundamentals of freedom of movement in the EU."
Ahead of the expected review of Schengen at the next EU summit, French President Nicolas Sarkozy is to discuss the issue Tuesday when he meets Italy's Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in Rome. Italy claims that some 26,000 migrants from the revolutions in Libya and Tunisia have landed, with thousand more on the tiny island of Malta.
The two governments are discussing changes to the Schengen system to make it easier to block sudden floods of migrants. The Schengen system already allows for temporary suspensions when national security or public health is in danger but the new influx hardly qualifies.
Alarmed at the prospects of tens of thousands more immigrants, Italy has given the new arrivals temporary papers that would have enabled them to travel on to France and other EU countries, a move that spurred France to block the trains. Although the temporary French move was judged legitimate by the EU Commission, Malmstrom is to propose new common migration and asylum rules for all 27 EU countries at an extraordinary meeting of home affairs ministers on May 12.
"The commission is prepared to make lots of proposals for a common and asylum and migration policy, combating illegal immigration but also allowing for legal migration, because we need labor force. We also need member states to show leadership when explaining this in their national debates," she said.
The issue has been complicated by the latest report from Europol, the trans-EU police liaison system. Its Terrorism Situation and Trend Report, published last week, reported a 50 percent rise across the EU in the number of arrests linked to Islamic terrorism. On the Arab Spring, it noted that "should Arab expectations [of political reform] not be met, the consequence may be a surge in support for terrorist organizations."
A further complication stems from the divisions within the EU over the civil war in Libya, one of the main causes of the flood of North African migrants. Germany refused to vote for the U.N. resolution under which the French, British and United States are enforcing the no-fly zone and giving air support to the rebels fighting to overthrow the Gadhafi regime.
With such divisions over the origins of the latest influx, it was no surprise that German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich said Italy "should solve the refugee problem by itself." But Germany also has doubts over Schengen, agreeing with France that Bulgaria and Romania should remain outside the system until its border controls are more efficient and the widespread corruption brought under control.
The heart of the problem, however, is that EU solidarity has yet to prove sufficiently robust to weather a crisis, whether it be over migration, foreign policy or the euro currency. Domestic politics, with France's Sarkozy facing re-election next year with opinion poll ratings below those of anti-immigrant Front National leader Marine Le Pen, usually trumps EU concerns.
The result of this month's election in Finland, when the upstart True Finns party won nearly 20 percent of the vote with its slogan of "no bailouts" for troubled members of the eurozone, exemplifies the financial aspect of the problem.
Ironically, the European Parliament's economics committee last week passed a series of measures designed to give the EU Commission more powers to impose common economic policies for all member states along with sanctions to enforce common rules on levels of debt and deficits. It will be dead on arrival when the new legislation goes to the EU Council, where the heads of the 27 governments meet. European solidarity finishes a long second to prospects of re-election back home.