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Austria's symbolic Brenner Pass threat

Richard Fuchs / gro
April 30, 2016

Interior Minister Wolfgang Sobotka says Austria could seal the Brenner Pass to avoid being "overrun" by refugees. Germany objects to that plan. And both countries have increased the pressure on Italy.

Brenner Österreich
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/R. Tomasi

Relations started cooling between Germany and Austria when refugees began to arrive in large numbers last year. The frost was obvious on Friday, when Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere received his new Austrian counterpart, Wolfgang Sobotka, in Potsdam. After further restricting asylum last week, Austria is now preparing border facilities at the Brenner Pass. Germany officially rejects such measures, but Sobotka said it was necessary to prevent the "extreme situation" of Austria's being "overrun" by refugees. And so, a 400-meter (1,300-foot) fence is being erected in the Brenner valley, the main route north from Italy. Now, 240 police officers are guarding the border there. The fence will be installed so that lock elements can be inserted quickly should refugees again arrive in large numbers, Sobotka said.

Sobotka has publicly estimated that between 200,000 and 1 million refugees are in Libya, waiting to make the journey to Europe across the Mediterranean and northward via Italy. The wide range could not be confirmed; in fact, a representative of the UN's refugee agency told the German newspaper Bild that about 100,000 refugees are stranded in Libya. Still, both interior ministers want to increase pressure on authorities in Rome. "Whatever happens at the Brenner Pass is first and foremost a matter of urgency in Italy," de Maiziere said. Both interior ministers have urged the country to step up patrols on the Schengen zone's internal borders. De Maiziere demanded an end to the "wave-through approach."

Just Thursday, Sobotka himself visited his counterpart in Rome. Angelino Alfano expressed dismay at the construction of the Brenner barrier. Italian officials consider the step unacceptable, especially with regard to the damage it would cause to tourism and the economy in both countries. In a TV interview, Prime Minister Matteo Renzi said Austria's plan went "against history, logic and the future."

Deutschland Berlin Österreich Treffen Innenminister Sobotka und de Maiziere
Sobotka (left) and Maiziere took opposite sides on the border, but agreed that Italy should do moreImage: picture alliance/dpa/R. Hirschberger

Austria's national 'emergency'

On Wednesday, Austria's parliament adopted laws to increase asylum restrictions. So in the future, the Alpine republic can declare a national "emergency" and subsequently refuse the majority of refugees at the border. Under the new law, such an "emergency" would initially last for six months and could be extended to up to two years. Only asylum applicants who could be subjected to torture in their home countries would be treated differently. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon sharply criticized Austrian politicians for restricting asylum. "I am alarmed by the growing xenophobia here," he said in an address to the parliament Thursday.

The restrictions are motivated by the rise of the right-wing populist Freedom Party, whose candidate Norbert Hofer managed to win the first round of the presidential election last week, vanquishing the establishment candidates and forcing a runoff with Alexander Van der Bellen, of the Greens. The right-wing populists have celebrated one success after the other.

De Maiziere and Sobotka seemed to find their way back to the path of conciliation by the end of their meeting. The disagreements that had ensued from the closure of the Balkan land route used by refugees last year were "settled" for once and for all. Sobotka promised de Maiziere that Austria would not take any more unilateral action. He said it was "very, very clear" that the nations involved must cooperate at the European level.

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