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France, Germany push for tighter EU borders after attacks

BERLIN/PARIS (Reuters) - France and Germany pushed on Tuesday to tighten European Union borders to head off what French President Emmanuel Macron called the “threat of terrorism” after suspected Islamist militants killed eight people in Paris, Nice and Vienna within a month.

French President Emmanuel Macron looks on, during a conference with Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and a videoconference with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, European Council President Charles Michel and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, at the Elysee Palace, in Paris, France November 10, 2020. Michel Euler/Pool via REUTERS

The attacks refocused the EU’s attention on religious extremism, which fell off the top of the political agenda after the 2017 defeat of Islamic State forces in the Middle East.

Under pressure to beef up security and reassure voters following the latest attacks, Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Europe’s troubled Schengen zone of control-free travel over open borders urgently needed fixing.

The attacks in Nice and Vienna involved assailants who moved freely between Schengen countries.

“The threat of terrorism weighs on all of Europe. We must respond,” Macron said after discussing the matter with Merkel, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and top officials in Brussels, the EU hub.

“To reform Schengen is to allow free movement in security.”

Merkel sided with Macron in demanding stricter controls along the external frontier of the Schengen area, which brings together 26 countries, including most EU members as well as Iceland, Norway, Switzerland and Liechtenstein.

“It is vitally necessary to know who comes in and who leaves the Schengen area,” she said.

National security concerns, chaotic migration into the EU from the Middle East and Africa in recent years and most recently the coronavirus pandemic have led to the re-emergence of some border controls in the Schengen zone -- eroding what has been hailed as a milestone achievement in Europe’s post-World War Two integration.

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Austria’s Kurz also called for a more coordinated plan for dealing with foreign militants while Dutch premier Rutte emphasised stopping “undesirable” foreign financing as a further avenue to tackle extremism.

Other ideas include imposing stricter demands on online platforms to combat extremism, setting up a special European institute to train Muslim imams, and being able to effectively deport people with no claim to asylum in Europe as well as criminals and suspected extremists.

JOINT RESPONSE

EU justice and interior ministers meet on Friday -- the fifth anniversary of coordinated attacks in Paris in which Islamist gunmen killed more than 130 people -- to discuss a joint security response to the latest incidents.

Improving the sharing of security data and beefing up the bloc’s border force Frontex are also on the EU’s to-do list, according to their draft decision, which was seen by Reuters.

Crucially for Macron, the ministerial decision includes language reinforcing EU countries’ rights to temporarily suspend free movement across Schengen borders during security alerts. France has had such curbs on free movement in place since 2015.

But many of the proposals now on the table have proven difficult to agree, let alone implement, suggesting the 27 national EU leaders will have a hard nut to crack when they are due to decide on concrete steps in December.

The discussion about harsher security measures comes as the bloc’s executive has been making efforts for a “fresh start” on another sensitive debate within the bloc -- immigration.

Brussels proposed last summer to resolve years of rows over how to handle new arrivals by pushing for stricter border checks, tougher asylum scrutiny and effective returns of those not eligible -- but also a warmer welcome for refugees and legal labour immigrants to the ageing continent.

The 27 EU ministers are due to discuss those proposals on Friday. Commenting on the latest attacks, the EU’s top migration official, Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson, said on Tuesday the two debates should not be confused.

“It is important that we are not afraid or migration, especially not of migrants,” the Swede said in a speech.

“We need to manage migration but migration by itself is not a security threat. There might be individuals who are dangerous -- among migrants but also among people who already live here.

“Migration as such is not dangerous,” Johansson said.

Reporting by Paul Carrel, Thomas Escritt Joseph Nasr in Berlin, Dominique Vidalon and Matthieu Protard in Paris, Gabriela Baczynska and John Chalmers in Brussels, Francois Murphy in Vienna Writing by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Catherine Evans

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