BY Ray Fleming

TWO of the benefits of the European association most readily recognised and appreciated by its citizens are currently under threat. One long-running problem is the weakness of the economies of countries such as Greece, Ireland and Portugal which is leading to the validity of the euro single currency zone itself being questioned.

The second problem is very recent and threatens the Schengen system under which movement within its 22 member countries takes place without passport controls. The influx of immigrants from North Africa into Italy and France has led to calls for restrictions to be applied to the Schengen rules. In frantic meetings in Brussels on Thursday 15 of the 22 countries supported a move led by France and Italy for the restoration of border controls. Although it was not immediately clear which countries supported this change and which opposed it, Denmark had even unilaterally imposed border controls even before the Brussels discussions took place. There were also signs that some countries are using the crisis arising from the North African immigrants to implement restrictions already called for by right-wing political parties -- in addition to France and Italy, Denmark, the Netherlands and Finland are certainly in that category.

The critical question is whether groups of countries can change the Schengen rules to suit themselves.