MEPs urge Juncker to stand against Austria border fence

Jean-Claude Juncker.

Jean-Claude Juncker [Reuters/Vincent Kessler]

Leading MEPs have urged European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to take a position against Austria’s plans to erect a fence at its border with Italy, at the Brenner pass.

Gianni Pittella, the Italian leader of the S&D group in the European Parliament, told that the Austrian move was a “serious mistake”.

Austria outlined plans yesterday (27 April) to erect a fence at a border crossing with Italy that is a vital link between northern and southern Europe, escalating a standoff between the two states over how to handle the refugee crisis.

Erecting fences between Schengen states is seen as dangerous, although from a legal point of view, the Commission has been shy to say if it contradicts EU law or not.

Similar fences have been already erected in Spielfield, at Austria’s border with Slovenia, without the Commission making a big case out of it.

“The S&D Group considers the building of a preventive barrier at the Italian-Austrian Brenner border to be a serious mistake; one in stark contrast to the values and rules of the European Union. Hence, we urge the European Commission to assess whether the decision of the Austrian government complies with Schengen and EU rules. Europe must be a space of integration, cultural diversity, respect and human rights,” Pittella told EURACTIV.

Refugees are crossing the Mediterranean from Africa to Italy in growing numbers, and Austria has said Rome must stop them travelling onwards towards northern Europe or it will have to introduce border controls at the Brenner Pass in the Alps.

Italy prepares for surge in refugees

The number of refugee arrivals in Italy this year is already 80% higher than in the same period in 2015.  At the UN’s Geneva conference on Syrian refugees last Wednesday (30 March), Italy’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Paolo Gentiloni, announced that 3,700 people had been rescued over the previous five days alone.

Austria plans border controls at Brenner pass, Commission concerned

Austria will introduce tougher border controls at the Brenner Pass crossing with Italy from 1 June at the latest, as part of its tough response to the EU migration crisis, Defence Minister Hans Peter Doskozil said today (12 April). The Commission voiced concern at the news.

But with Austrian preparations for controls already under way, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi said Austria’s move was “shamelessly against European rules, as well as being against history, against logic and against the future”.

Austrian police in the Alpine province of Tyrol, which borders on northern Italy, presented plans for the installation of facilities at Brenner to inspect vehicles and process migrants, in the event formal controls are introduced.

Building work on some of the facilities at Brenner began two weeks ago, but their scale was not immediately known.

“A security fence of 370 metres (1,220 feet) is planned,” a Tyrol police spokesman said, adding that the fence was part of a system aimed at channelling migrants in the deep valley that the
Brenner Pass runs through.

Whether the fence is built, however, will depend on the outcome of talks in Rome on Thursday between Austrian Interior Minister Wolfgang Sobotka and his Italian counterpart, the
spokesman said.

Austria has taken an increasingly hard line on how to deal with the hundreds of thousands of asylum-seeking migrants, many of them fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East and
elsewhere, who have poured into Europe over the past year.

Austria buries hope for EU response to refugee crisis

Tensions reached a boiling point between the European states worst affected by the refugee crisis ahead of a meeting of Balkan states in Vienna today (24 February), as new figures showed no let-up in the influx of asylum seekers.

After throwing open its borders to the arrivals with Germany in September, Vienna has since said it cannot cope with the numbers, and it coordinated border restrictions that shut down the main Balkans migrant route from Greece to northern Europe.

Italy and Austria are part of the European Union’s Schengen open-border zone, but free movement has been jeopardised by the reitroduction of controls at some key crossings by countries affected by the migrant influx.

Austria’s governing coalition of Social Democrats and the conservative People’s Party is also under political pressure, as the anti-immigration Freedom Party’s candidate secured a record share of the vote in Sunday’s presidential election (22 April).

The Brenner Pass is the busiest route through the Alps for heavy goods vehicles and any controls there will slow traffic on an important corridor to Germany, Italy’s top trading partner.

“The construction work will be completed with or without a fence by the end of May,” the Tyrol police spokesman said, adding that border controls could be introduced before or after

Tough asylum law

The Austrian parliament on Wednesday (26 April) adopted one of Europe’s toughest asylum laws, as the country’s political leaders struggle to halt the surging far-right which is leading in presidential polls.

The hotly-disputed bill, which passed by 98 to 67, allows the government to declare a “state of emergency” if the migrant numbers suddenly rise and reject most asylum-seekers directly at the border, including from war-torn countries like Syria.

Rights groups, religious leaders and opposition parties have condemned the legislation – the latest in a string of hardline measures against migrants – as violating international human rights conventions.

But Interior Minister Wolfgang Sobotka insisted Austria had no other choice as long as “so many other European Union members fail to do their part” to stop the influx.

“We cannot shoulder the whole world’s burden,” he said.

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