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Brussels wants EU free-travel zone restored from mid-May, Germany skeptical

By Waverly Colville and Gabriela Baczynska

BRUSSELS/VALLETTA (Reuters) - The European Union's executive said on Wednesday emergency border controls imposed within the bloc's free-travel zone over the migration crisis should get a final three-month extension to mid-May, but Germany wants to keep them in place longer.

The European Commission proposed that Germany, Austria, Sweden, Denmark and Norway extend border checks inside the so-called Schengen zone beyond their current expiry in February.

"We currently have temporary border controls in place. These are exceptional measures for an exceptional situation," the bloc's migration commissioner, Dimitris Avramopoulos said in proposing the extension.

He made it clear, however, he wanted to restore the chief achievement of European integration in full from then on: "It's a question of three months to come back to normal."

However Germany, which holds elections on Sept.24 in which immigration and security will be prominent issues, wants to be able to extend the measures for longer, diplomatic sources said.

With immigration into the European Union under tighter control than at the height of the crisis, that may be hard to justify. That is why Germany's interior minister, Thomas de Maiziere, will propose on Thursday changing the legal justification for the border checks to security issues.

After a series of attacks in France, Belgium and Germany in 2015 and 2016, Berlin sees this as a more solid ground for ensuring it could keep internal border checks for longer.

More than a million refugees - mainly fleeing the war in Syria - and migrants arrived in Europe in 2015. While the number fades compared to the bloc's 500 million people, it triggered bitter disputes between EU states over how to provide for them.

The bloc has since tightened its border controls and is toughening its stance on granting asylum. Only some 360,000 people made it to Europe last year after a deal with Turkey that cut the number of arrivals in Greece.

AFRICA

The key route to Europe now leads from the coast of the lawless Libya to Italy. It has been used mostly by labor migrants from Africa seeking a better living in the wealthy Europe.

The EU is determined to curb these flows as well and is increasingly offering money and other assistance to African countries of origin and transit to prevent people from embarking for Europe.

EU leaders will discuss that on Feb.3 in Malta and the European Commission on Wednesday also proposed additional funding for the training of the Libyan coast guard.

Other projects include providing more funds to the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) to improve the dire conditions in which migrants live in Libyan camps - run by the government and militias alike - increase voluntary returns from Libya to where the migrants came from, help manage Libya's southern border and better assist those with a strong case for asylum in Europe.

Libya's neighbors Tunisia, Egypt and Algeria are also on the radar and the EU is looking at expanding its presence in Agadez, a desert town in Niger that is a key point of transit in Sahara for those on the move to Africa's northern coast.

All of that is fraught with security and logistical risks as the Libyan state collapsed after the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 and a new, U.N.-backed government does not exercise control over its territory.

(Writing by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Dominic Evans)