By Justyna Pawlak
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - France defended on Monday its decision to temporarily shut its borders to trains from Italy, in a sign of a deepening conflict in the European Union over its response to a refugee crisis in North Africa.
Fuelling the row are demands by Italy that other EU governments help it cope with 26,000 migrants who have arrived at its shores this year after fleeing violence in Libya and unrest in Tunisia and Egypt.
The demands, and Rome's decision to issue temporary permits allowing the migrants to travel across the bloc, have sparked a backlash against Italy as other governments fret about appearing too lenient at a time of growing hostility by voters toward newcomers in Europe.
During a visit to Bulgaria, French Interior Minister Claude Gueant insisted that Paris has respected EU rules on free movement of people when blocking trains carrying African migrants from Italy, a move that has irked Rome.
"We applied the letter and the spirit of the Schengen agreement," Gueant said.
But Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini told the daily La Repubblica in comments published on Monday that France has crossed the line and accused Paris of overstepping the bloc's Schengen treaty on border-free travel, a fundamental EU law.
"If the situation persists, we would save time by just saying that we are changing our minds about free circulation, which is one of the fundamental principles of the Union," he said. "But we are sure that France will explain."
France sent a letter on Monday to the European Commission, the EU executive, to justify the blockade on the Ventimiglia-Menton border.
But the spat over migrants from Italy is a prelude to what will likely turn into an acrimonious debate in the coming weeks over how the EU should tackle immigration pressures from North Africa after revolts there punctured borders facing Europe.
Many EU capitals are worried offering shelter to too many migrants will encourage more to attempt illegal entry to Europe.
Aid agencies warn that thousands more may still be heading north across the Mediterranean Sea, either directly from Libya or through Tunisia and Egypt, as long as fighting between Muammar Gaddafi and Libyan rebels continues.
The European Commission is trying to persuade the capitals to offer travel and trade incentives to authorities in Tunis and Cairo to secure their borders. But many may be reluctant to give too much ground in return for long-term gains.
Heads of EU states are due to discuss proposals at a summit in June, but observers say concrete solutions are unlikely to emerge, threatening to complicate relations with new governments in Tunisia and Egypt.
France is not alone in its efforts to keep African migrants from Italy at bay. Tunisians flying into Belgium will have to prove they have at least 10,000 euros ($14,330) per couple if traveling on temporary papers issued by Italy.
"If they come they have a three-month visa, which is a tourism one, so Belgium has the right to .. check if the objective of their visit is indeed tourism," said a spokesman for Belgium's asylum minister Melchior Wathelet.
Austria, which like France borders Italy, is also looking for ways to stop migrants. And Britain has just agreed to cap the number of skilled workers -- from anywhere outside the EU -- it takes in, highlighting a wider EU trend toward tightening borders in the wake of the global financial crisis.
Under EU rules, governments can issue residence permits to non-EU citizens, but migrants have to have travel documents and means to support themselves if they want to enter other states.
An EU government can also conduct sporadic border controls, and can briefly re-instate full borders, to aid public security.
(Additional reporting by Catherine Hornby in Rome, Nick Vinocur and Vicky Buffery in Paris, and Ben Deighton in Brussels)