Austria imposing controls on its border with Italy would be a “political catastrophe” for Europe, EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said on Saturday (7 May).
Vienna is threatening to resume checks on the Brenner Pass between the two countries as part of a package of anti-migrant measures if Italy does not do more to reduce the number of new arrivals heading to Austria.
The Alpine route is a major European transport corridor and a key link between the north and south of the continent, said Juncker during an interview with Germany’s Funke Mediengruppe.
“This is why everything that blocks the Brenner Pass will have not just serious economic consequences, but most importantly heavy political consequences,” he said.
Juncker also raised the alarm over Austria’s response to the migrant crisis which he said had tempted other countries to close their borders while making far-right politics “presentable” elsewhere in Europe.
Austria’s government was licking its wounds after a historic debacle that saw the opposition anti-immigrant far-right triumph yesterday (24 April) in a presidential ballot two years before the next scheduled general election.
“What we see in Austria we have unfortunately seen in other European countries, where (political) parties play with people’s fears,” he said.
On average 2,500 lorries and 15,000 cars travel daily through the Brenner Pass – a crucial lifeline for Italy’s exports to northern Europe that is already prone to delays even without border checks.
A demonstration against a plan to restrict access through the Brenner Pass turned violent on the same day, with Italian police firing teargas at hundreds of protesters throwing stones and firecrackers.
Two police officers were injured in the clashes, the head of a local Italian police union Fulvio Coslovi said. He added that around 10 demonstrators were being held by police.
Local police in Tyrol, Austria said over 600 protesters showed up to the third violent demonstration at the Brenner Pass in just over a month, meeting at the Brenner station in Italy.
TV footage showed clouds of smoke filling the Brenner railway station as groups of protesters, their faces masked against the fumes, hurled stones and smoke bombs as they faced off against lines of police in riot gear. Estimates on the number of demonstrators varied between 250 and 600.
Around 300 Austrian police officers were deployed but had not yet had to intervene, a spokesman said, since the protest had taken place exclusively on the Italian side of the border so far.
Italian newspaper Corriera della Sera reported earlier this week that the protest had been organised by an anarchist group from Trentino, northern Italy, and was expected to attract demonstrators from abroad.
How many will cross the Mediterranean?
Austrian Interior Minister Wolfgang Sobotka said in Rome last month that as many as a million migrants were poised to cross the Mediterranean from Libya this year. Italy says the figure is much lower, though calm summer seas may well bring a surge.
Italy and Germany are utterly opposed to Austria’s plan to build a fence at its border with Italy, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi said on Thursday after talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel yesterday (5 May) urged European leaders to protect EU borders or risk a “return to nationalism” as the continent battles its worst migration crisis since World War II.
With over 28,500 migrants arriving since 1 January, Italy has once again become the principal entry point for migrants arriving in Europe, following a controversial EU-Turkey deal and the closure of the Balkan route up from Greece.
In previous years, many migrants landing in Italy have headed on to other countries including Austria but Rome now fears it could be stuck hosting thousands of new arrivals.