By Thomas Escritt and Matthieu Protard

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

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 needed urgent fixing.

“The threat of terrorism weighs on all of Europe. We must respond,” Macron said after discussing the matter with Merkel, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz 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 as well as chaotic migration into the EU from the Middle East and Africa in recent years have led to the re-emergence of border controls in parts of the Schengen zone – eroding what has often been hailed as a milestone achievement in European integration after World War Two.

EU justice and interior ministers meet on Friday to discuss a joint security response. Ideas also include imposing stricter demands on online platforms to combat online extremism, setting up a special European institute to train Muslim imams, being able to effectively deport people with no claim to asylum in Europe, as well as criminals and suspected extremists.

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 them in place since Islamist gunmen killed more than 130 people in Paris in coordinated attacks in 2015.

Beyond protecting EU borders, Austria’s Kurz also called for a more coordinated plan for dealing with foreign militants.

But the ideas now on the table have so far 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.

(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)

Copyright 2020 Thomson Reuters.

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