Freilassing, a border town between Germany and Austria, benefitted from the Schengen Agreement for years. Reimposed border checks are putting the local economy into serious jeopardy, as DW's Daniel Heinrich reports.
Regina Pichler does not come across as someone who easily despairs. Ever since she was a child, she has been working in the family-owned garden center in Freilassing. She has her business under control. Nonetheless, the worry lines on the face of the sprightly woman in her late fifties have been deepening in the past few weeks. The situation has never been this bad. "Fewer Austrians are coming to shop," she says. Sales have slumped by more than half.
The reason behind the slowdown is the effect of re-introduced border controls in the region. In September alone, 225,000 refugees entered Germany; most of them crossed the Austrian-German border near Freilassing. As many as 15,000 people arrive on a typical weekend, roughly equivalent to Freilassing's population. Authorities were overwhelmed and asked the German government for help. Pressured by Bavarian leaders, German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere pulled the ripcord and re-instated border controls.
Impact on local economy
The new patrols have been set up to channel the influx of refugees, to register the new arrivals and then to send them to reception centers in different parts of Germany. This process has had a negative impact on the Berchtesgaden region, where Freilassing is located, with dramatic consequences. Before the new border checks, a local commuter train left Freilassing for Salzburg every ten minutes - and during rush hour, even more frequently. Now, rail travel has been halted - either partially or entirely suspended. No one can say when the regular schedule will restart. In addition, motor vehicle checks on highways are increasing; sometimes they even cause kilometer-long traffic jams on roads to or from Austria.
Anke Demmrich manages the largest clothing store in town. She clearly feels the changes. "Because of the border patrols, one third of customers from Salzburg have stopped coming here and that, of course, has led to a great loss in sales," she says. Even though a financially sound corporation backs her store, she is still concerned.
The European ideal - gone?
Thomas Scheid from Freilassing's economic forum confirms the decline in revenue throughout the whole region. He finds the situation regrettable - because of ideology as well as ecnomics. "You must understand, we haven't had borders here for years," he says.
Indeed, thousands of school children commute from Germany to Austria every day; business people live on both sides of the border. For centuries, the population in the border region has felt connected. Twenty years ago, local municipalities on the German and Austrian side joined together to form a region with transnational cooperation and structures known as "EuRegio".
Amid the backdrop of the Alps with grazing cows and the nearby city of music, Salzburg, many cross-border projects have been launched, especially in the tourism sector. All of them were funded by the European Union and were fostered by a European ideal of not needing national boundaries. It seems like this ideal is now passé.
Skewed media coverage
But border checks are only partly responsible. People here also feel that the media plays a part, by portraying the situation much more dramatically than the reality. Anke Demmrich recounts how she ran into a customer from the Freilassing area in Rosenheim, a city 80 kilometers further into the interior of the country. "Even though she had to travel much further, she intentionally did not go to Freilassing. Media coverage made her think that chaos prevails here," she explains.
The thousands of refugees that pass through every day are, in fact, nowhere to be seen in the city. The federal police force intercepts the refugees at the border and takes them to a furniture store, which has been converted to a registration center for refugees.
Bernhard Zimmer, a Green Party politician, believes that local people's commitment makes a difference. "There is nothing chaotic about the situation on the ground," he says, adding that everything is well run. "The police, the Caritas association, the Red Cross and dedicated citizens are working together incredibly well."
Fear of losing a livelihood
Regina Pichler also feels that the situation at the border is much less dramatic than often portrayed. Her frequent journeys to and from Austria go smoothly. "We always cross immediately. We even think a ten-minute wait at the border is too long," she says. "When radio or TV reports say that people have to wait an hour, then no one wants to accept it."
She faces the future with concern. "It is a stressful situation because no one knows what will happen." If something does not change, the economic consequences will be fatal for her family business, she says. "We have to two companies: a garden center and a flower shop. If this goes on, then we have to dismiss employees and close one of the businesses because our revenue is down."