Warnings of ‘a second Idomeni’ at Brenner pass

Austria's introduction of border controls at the Brenner border with Italy could result in a “second Idomeni” being created, a German politician warned yesterday.

Warnings of 'a second Idomeni' at Brenner pass

Over 10,000 refugees and migrants are currently residing in a makeshift refugee camp in the northern Greek town of Idomeni after Macedonia closed the border earlier this year.

Austria – which strongly advocated for the closure of the west Balkans migrant route – recently started to build a border checkpoint and a road barrier at the Brenner pass between Austria and Italy.

The country's defence minister Hans Peter Doskozil (SPÖ) also warned last week that Austria is prepared close the border crossing with Italy in extreme conditions.

The measures are part of a national effort from Austria to prepare for what authorities expect will be a repeat of last summer’s wave of refugees and migrants making their way to Europe seeking protection and a better life.

German politician and head of the European People’s Party Group Manfred Weber said yesterday that Brenner could become a “second Idomeni” if the area ended up being cordoned off by Austria’s border controls, causing a backlog of people on the Italian side of the border.

Speaking to journalists whilst inspecting the site, Weber called on Austria to only introduce the planned measures in “extraordinary circumstances” and for the two countries to sit down together to discuss the matter.

The visit was welcomed by Austrian politician Othmar Karas (ÖVP), who has criticised the warnings from Doskozil about possibly closing the border.

“Whoever wants to close the Brenner has learned nothing from history, neither Austrian nor European history,” said Karas, quoted in the ORF. “Fences inside Europe are the symbols of a failed collaboration. If all countries implemented and applied the jointly agreed EU agreement, there [would be] no need for border fortifications inside the EU.” 

Austria's foreign minister Sebastian Kurz defended the measures, however, saying that there was much historical awareness in Austria “but also realism”.

“No-one closes Brenner, if you introduce border controls. The free movement of people and goods continues – and yes, in an ideal case there are no border controls,” he said, adding that it became necessary after Austria was “left alone” to deal with the crisis.

Italy sees spike in boat crossings

Just last Friday, Italy insisted it was not facing an “invasion” after a spike in migrant boat crossings from Libya exacerbated fears the country is on the verge of becoming the main entry point for people trying to reach Europe.

Nearly 6,000 mostly African migrants have landed at southern Italian ports since Tuesday but Prime Minister Matteo Renzi said the overall trend this year was broadly in line with the 2015 pattern.

Yesterday hundreds of migrants died after their boat capsized in the sea between Libya and Italy. Survivors said they believed up to 500 people died, although the coastguard has not yet confirmed the figure.


‘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.