‘Italy must stop refugee flow or we’ll shut Brenner pass’

Austria has threatened to completely close the Brenner pass, one of the main links across the Alps, unless Italy stops the flow of refugees to its northern neighbour.

'Italy must stop refugee flow or we’ll shut Brenner pass'
People demonstrate against the Austrian government's planned reintroduction of border controls at the Brennerpass, Austria, 03 April 2016. Photo: EPA/JAN HETFLEISCH

The country’s Defense Minister Hans Peter Doskozil said the “extreme” measure would be implemented if Italy fails to stop refugees crossing the border or doesn’t accept those who are sent back.

Speaking at a meeting of his SPÖ party in Innsbruck on Wednesday night, Doskozil said the Tyrol area of Austria has become a “refugee waiting room”.

Austria is adopting an increasingly hardline approach to the refugee crisis, deporting 2,800 failed asylum seekers since the start of the year.

Austrian police said construction work began on Tuesday on concrete foundations for a planned control area off the northbound motorway at the Brenner pass, which was an active transit point last summer for migrants making their way up from southern Italy.

Drastic solutions

Meanwhile, Austrian Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner said that while her government will do everything possible to avoid drastic solutions, “Italy must do more to process migrants”.

Austria, which received 90,000 asylum claims last year, has already stepped up controls along its borders with Slovenia and Hungary.

The planned fence at the Italian border came under attack by the EU after Italy's Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni and Interior Minister Angelino Alfano wrote a joint letter to EU Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos demanding that he urgently raise the issue with Vienna.

European Commission spokeswoman Natasha Bertaud said on Tuesday that Avramopoulos would discuss the construction work with Mikl-Leitner.

Very concerned

“If these plans should materialize then we will have to look at them very seriously. The Brenner pass is essential for freedom of movement within the European Union,” she told a press conference. “The Commission is very concerned.”

The Italian ministers said the Austrian actions “did not appear to be based on the facts”, adding that Mikl-Leitner had “presented no data showing an alleged increase in the migrant flow from Italy”.

Austria, which has said it will implement additional control measures at its borders from June 1st, is also concerned that following the closure earlier this year of the Balkan trail from Greece towards Austria, a new route across the sea from Libya to Italy and then northwards will open up.

Church weighs in

The Catholic church has also lined up to oppose Austria's plans, with two senior officials criticising the decision to build barriers and other structures at the Brenner Pass, according to a report in Catholic Culture News.

Calling for “welcome for the one who knocks,” Patriarch Francesco Moraglia of Venice criticized the “manifest impotence” of Europe’s “ruling class” to develop a continental policy to address the “incessant flow” of migrants, according to La Repubblica.

Bishop Ivo Muser of Bolzano-Bressanone said that “border fences, nationalistic interests, the differentiation between us and the other, between natives and foreigners, stir up fears and build barriers in our heads and hearts.”


‘Discrimination’: Austria’s benefit cuts for immigrants ‘go against free movement’

Benefit cuts imposed by Austria on immigrants whose children live in their country of origin contradict EU law becasue they constitute "discrimination on the ground of nationality", a legal adviser at the bloc's top court said on Thursday.

A picture of the sign and logo of the Court of Justice of the European Union in Luxembourg
A picture of the sign and logo of the Court of Justice of the European Union in Luxembourg on January 13, 2020. (Photo by JOHN THYS / AFP)

The opinion is the latest legal hitch to befall a series of measures — imposed by a previous government that included the far-right — which sought to restrict benefit payments to foreigners.

Richard de la Tour, advocate general of the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU), said the cuts to child benefits constituted “an infringement of the right of free movement conferred on EU citizens”.

The specific case relates to reforms that came into effect in 2019 which indexed child benefits according to where the recipient’s children live.

This meant reduced payments for tens of thousands of eastern Europeans who work in Austria — notably in the care sector — but whose children remain in their countries of origin.

The advocate general’s advice is not binding on the court but it is seen as influential.

De la Tour found that the cuts were “indirect discrimination on the ground of nationality which is permissible only if it is objectively justified”, and that Austria had failed to do so.

They contravened the principle that “if a migrant worker pays social contributions and taxes in a member state, he or she must be able to benefit from the same allowances as nationals of that state”, he added.

In 2020 the European Commission, supported by six eastern member states, brought an action before the CJEU claiming Austria was “failing to fulfil its obligations”.

Former Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz had said he hoped the cuts would save 114 million euros ($130 million) a year but in 2019 they recouped 62 million euros.

The former coalition also introduced benefit cuts for immigrants who failed to reach a certain level of German, but those measures were subsequently overturned by the Austrian courts.

The government that introduced in the cuts was brought down in a corruption scandal in May 2019.

It included the centre-right Austrian People’s Party (OeVP), which is still the senior partner in the current government.

However their current coalition partners, the Greens, opposed the benefit cuts at the time.