* Immigration debate gathering speed in Europe
* EU leaders say curbs on free travel may be needed
* Turmoil in North Africa fuels migration concern
By Justyna Pawlak
BRUSSELS, June 24 (Reuters) - European Union leaders agreed on Friday to tighten migration safeguards, including potentially reintroducing border controls between states, in a controversial response to an influx of migrants fleeing North Africa’s upheaval.
The proposals clear the way for border controls between states to be reintroduced in cases when a government fails to sufficiently protect the bloc’s external frontiers from an influx of immigrants.
The push for new rules is unlikely to bring tight limits on free movement of people, but it underlines growing hostility towards immigration and concerns over unrestricted travel in parts of Europe.
Citizens of all 27 EU states are generally allowed to travel freely throughout the bloc. Twenty-two EU states and three non-members have gone further, eliminating border controls between them entirely under the Schengen agreement, named for a village in Luxembourg where the pact was signed in 1985.
France has campaigned strongly for the right to stop migrants from crossing its borders. Other EU governments have cautioned against allowing fears over immigration to damage one of the main achievements of European integration.
Heads of the EU’s 27 member states said at a summit in Brussels that border controls could be introduced in “truly critical” circumstances, but added that free movement of people was a fundamental freedom.
Speaking after the summit, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said that without reforms, Europe’s Schengen zone would be damaged by unilateral moves by EU states.
“I have been very pleased that we took that step, because I really value Schengen and I insisted that if Schengen was not reformed then there was a risk that it could disappear,” he said.
Discussions over reforming Schengen have spilled into a heated debate over its expansion.
At the summit, Romanian President Traian Basescu asked for assurances his country, which is part of the EU but outside the Schengen area, would get a target date to join the zone, EU diplomats said.
Efforts by Romania to join Schengen have been delayed this year, with France and other members citing concerns about corruption.
Basescu’s appeal ran into opposition, with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte saying voters in the Netherlands want Schengen reformed before it is expanded.
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said current Schengen rules were a threat to Italy, where hundreds of thousands of Romanian citizens have sought work in recent years.
“Schengen poses two problems. The first concerns the external borders, and the second involves countries which, once they join Schengen, could see many of their citizens wanting to move to countries like Italy or France,” Berlusconi said.
Officials in Italy have also demanded help from other EU states in dealing with thousands of migrants who have arrived on Italian islands since the revolution in Tunisia in January and the outbreak of violence in Libya a month later.
The refugee crisis has ignited another debate in Europe — over the extent that EU governments should share the responsibility for immigrants arriving elsewhere in the bloc.
Leaders at the summit agreed on the need for more cooperation between EU governments on the equipment and procedures used to safeguard external borders.
But Sweden said the EU should focus more on bringing in more legal migrants to ensure sustainability of its pension systems, stretched by ageing populations, and to fill gaps in unskilled labour forces. (Editing by Rex Merrifield and Peter Graff)