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Why talk of barriers is opening up old wounds in South Tyrol

Austria on Friday backtracked on plans to tighten border controls at the Brenner Pass. But the mayor of Brenner is not so convinced. He tells The Local why.

Why talk of barriers is opening up old wounds in South Tyrol
Brenner train station. Photo: Angela Giuffrida/The Local Italy

For Franz Kompatscher, the mayor of the South Tyrolean town of Brenner, the friction between Italy and Austria over refugees not only threatens to exacerbate the dilemma, but also open up old wounds.

“Even just talking about building a fence and making boundaries hurts us deeply,” he told The Local.

“It’s a bad symbol.”

Kompatscher, who was born among the pristine surroundings of Colle Isarco, a hamlet nestled in the mountains close to Italy's northern border with Austria, can put his mind to rest. For now.

The Brenner Pass, a crucial transport corridor at the Austria-Italy border. Photo: Angela Giuffrida

On Friday, Austria, which ceded the southern part of Tyrol to Italy after the First World War, said it would no longer seek to bolster anti-migrant checks at the Alpine Brenner Pass, a major European transport corridor and crucial lifeline for Italian exports to northern Europe.

The decision came after weeks of terse exchanges between the two countries. Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi said the plans went “flagrantly” against EU law, while Austria, which accepted 90,000 asylum requests in 2015, told Italy to stem the flow of migrants across the frontier, or else a 375-metre fence would go up.

The hardline approach was effective: Rome dispatched over 100 extra guards to patrol the crossing point, while train checks at Brenner station have been reinforced – a move that led to a marked drop in migrant numbers, and to Austria backing down.

“There are still migrants who come every day and try to board trains to Innsbruck, but not as many as a few weeks ago,” a guard at Brenner told The Local on Friday.

Though Kompatscher sympathizes with Austria, whose population, at 8.74 million, is smaller than the northern Italian region of Lombardy, over the refugee burden, the uncertainty surrounding the country’s political future is making him nervous.

Chancellor Werner Faymann quit last week, two months after saying Austria would no longer be a “distribution hub” for refugees and just weeks after the right-wing Freedom Party (FPÖ), led by Norbert Hofer, triumphed in the first round of the presidential election.

“We hope that this decision remains in place,” Kompatscher said.

“We expect things to stay calm for the next few weeks, or two months. But everything could change. We don’t know yet what will happen to Austria’s government. The summer will also inevitably bring more migrants – it’s not a problem that’s going to go away anytime soon.”

Brenner last year became a transport hub for migrants travelling north. Photo: Angela Giuffrida

Last summer, Brenner became a transit hub for migrants who arrived by boat in southern Italy before travelling north, with many crossing over to Austria unchallenged.

Meanwhile, Italy last week eclipsed Greece in terms of migrant arrivals for the first time since June 2015, with 8,370 landing in April alone.

With fears of a summer revival, Austria is now trying to drastically decrease the number of asylum claims in 2016 after processing 90,000 – the second-highest among EU states per capita – last year.

“They're aiming for 37,000 and are already at 16,000. So by the end of July they'll reach the target,” Kompatscher added.

“What will happen after that? For us, it’s a concern.”

The threats to raise a boundary at the Brenner Pass, 21 years after customs and immigration posts were removed, were not just empty words: on Friday, hours before Austria’s announcement, men could be seen preparing what The Local was told were areas allocated for prefabricated buildings to accommodate checkpoints. Austria said such preparations would continue as a precautionary measure – that is, if Italian migrant checks fall by the wayside.

But apart from the risk to trade and tourism in the predominantly German-speaking South Tyrol, the idea of a “fence”, even if intended figuratively, has triggered angst among the population of 511,000.

Many still struggle to accept the fact that the region is part of Italy, with several calls made in recent years, from both sides of the border, for a referendum on reunification with North Tyrol. The most recent came from Austrian right-wing leader Heinz-Christian Strache.

When a line was drawn between the two in 1919, a formerly united province, which had been part of Austria for five centuries, was thrown into disarray, paving the way for several turbulent decades.

Not only was the area forcibly Italianized under Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini’s rule, a pact between him and Adolf Hitler saw many forced to move into the German Reich and renounce their homeland.

Terrorism marred much of the 1960s, as activists sought for the region to be handed back to Austria. It has only been since 1972, when the region was granted autonomy, that it has been relatively peaceful, and prosperous.

Read more: Italy's South Tyrol: where an identity crisis lingers

But it has only really been since 1995, when customs controls were done away with at the Brenner Pass, often hailed as a symbol of successful European integration, that the South Tyroleans have felt more at ease.

“It was a joyous moment,” Kompatscher said.

“We feel Tyrolese; the idea of building a fence to our fatherland again stirs a lot of emotion. We hope it never comes true.” 

For members

MOVING TO AUSTRIA

‘I’ll probably return to the UK’: Moving to Austria as a Brit post-Brexit

Moving to Austria as a British citizen is not as easy as it was a couple of years ago, but it is still possible if you’re willing to jump through a few more bureaucratic hoops.

'I’ll probably return to the UK': Moving to Austria as a Brit post-Brexit

For British people that were living in Austria by the end of December 2020, nothing much has changed to everyday life when it comes to their status and rights (apart from losing voting rights in local elections and freedom of movement across the EU).

But for any Brits arriving since January 1st 2021, they have been considered as third country nationals and subject to the immigration rules for non-EU or EEA citizens.

This has been a shock to some British people that are not used to navigating EU immigration systems – and a stark reminder of how different moving to an EU country was before Brexit.

FOR MEMBERS: How can British second home owners spend more than 90 days in Austria?

To find out how the process now works, The Local spoke to two people who have done it (or tried to). 

Here’s what they have to say about their experiences.

Navigating Austrian immigration during Covid

Helen Murray, 30, moved to Austria in 2021 after first being granted a Visa D to enter the country and then securing a settlement permit (researcher) to take up a PhD position in Vienna.

Visa D allows third country nationals to enter Austria for up to six months, but as Helen applied for the visa at the height of Covid-19 lockdowns in early 2021, it was a complicated process.

Helen told The Local: “To get the visa I had to organise everything without going to Austria. This meant that I had to sort out renting somewhere (visa required rental contract) over the internet without seeing any apartments, and needing somewhere that was furnished – not easy in Vienna – so I could see out the quarantine.”

Additionally, Helen had to book a flight to Austria to secure the visa, even though flights from the UK were banned from landing in Austria at the time due to Covid-19 restrictions.

READ MORE: Reader question: Are Brits in Austria still banned from giving blood?

Since arriving in Austria, Helen has also noticed the difference in rights between British people that have the Article 50 card (a post-Brexit residency permit for Brits that were living in Austria before December 31st 2020), and those that don’t.

Helen said: “Nearly all of my British friends here have Article 50 cards, and so have all these rights that I don’t have. 

“It’s particularly galling because I know exactly how easy it was to come here before Brexit. I think now to stay in Austria you have to want it because it’s a lot of work, time and money.”

But when asked if Helen would still make the move to Austria post-Brexit with the benefit of hindsight, it was a question she initially found hard to answer. 

She said: “It’s a tricky question to answer because I have mixed feelings about moving here, but it’s mostly personal and professional reasons which would probably still be there regardless of Brexit.

“I would definitely say though that Brexit has made it too difficult for me to want to stay once my current contract is up, and I’ll most probably be returning to the UK. 

“This is because there are an increasing number of hurdles to pass with every visa extension and, because of Austria’s policy of not allowing dual citizenship, there’s no reward for staying here and doing all that as I wouldn’t be willing to give up my UK citizenship.”

READ ALSO: ‘Ashamed, embarrassed, disappointed’ – How Brits in the EU feel about the UK

Dreams of retirement in the Austrian Alps

Gerry Stapleton, a retired property developer from the UK, has owned a second home in Zell am See in Salzburg since 2008. He was hoping to gain residency in Austria to bypass the rule that states third country nationals can only spend 90 days in every 180 days in the EU.

Earlier this year, Gerry and his partner were granted temporary residence permits but came across difficulties when trying to secure health insurance – something that is mandatory for all residents in Austria.

Gerry told The Local: “What we were required to show was not that we had travel insurance but that we had proper, full medical insurance cover, similar to that provided by the Austrian and UK health care systems. 

Zell am See, in Austria (Photo by Markus Lederer on Unsplash)

“The authorities in Zell am See tried to be helpful and suggested at least six insurance companies whose cover would have been satisfactory. I tried them all, and some UK and international companies as well, but with no luck. 

“The major stumbling block was our ages – I am 74 and my partner is 77 – and none of the companies would offer cover for someone aged 75 or older.”

The solution would have been for Gerry and his partner to transfer their healthcare from the UK system to Austria. However, this would have left them without any coverage in their home country, which wasn’t suitable as they still want to spend part of the year in the UK.

Gerry added: “We have, therefore, reluctantly withdrawn our applications, although I keep trying to find something that might help.”

FOR MEMBERS: EXPLAINED: The 2022 salary requirements for Austria’s EU Blue Card

Brits in Austria

So, what are the options for British people who want to move to Austria post-Brexit? Here are a few possibilities.

First, there is the Red-White-Red Card for qualified or skilled workers from non-EU countries that want to live and work in Austria. If granted, the visa is valid for 24 months and allows visa holders to bring family members with them.

However, there are different types of visas issued under the umbrella of the Red-White-Red Card, depending on the applicant’s professional background.

For example, those with advanced degrees and management experience in the fields of mathematics, informatics, natural sciences or technology are considered as very highly qualified workers. They can initially enter Austria with a Job Seeker Visa, which can later be transferred to a Red-White-Red Card following a job offer.

Alternatively, there is a category for skilled workers in shortage occupations, such as engineers, carpenters, physicians, chefs and accountants. For this category, applicants must score a minimum of 50 points in the eligibility criteria (including elementary level German and English language skills), show proof of relevant qualifications and have a valid job offer.

READ ALSO: Can foreigners buy a second home in Austria?

Additionally, there are several other categories for the Red-White-Red Card, including one for recent graduates from an Austrian education institution (which Helen Murray would be eligible for) and family reunification. Each category has its own eligibility criteria. 

And there is the EU Blue Card, which is available for non-EU citizens with a job offer in Austria with a salary of at least €66,593.

Then there is the Austrian residency option.

Austria is a great place to live, but getting a residence permit can be tricky. (Photo by Frank J on Pexels)

Applying for residency in Austria is a big commitment and involves giving up residency in the UK (but not citizenship).

It also usually means losing access to the NHS because you will be required to contribute to the social security system in Austria, unless you have private medical insurance (an issue encountered by Gerry Stapleton).

In the case of retired people, Patrick Kainz, a Vienna-based immigration lawyer, told The Local in a previous article that the best approach is to apply for a “gainful employment excepted” residents permit (Niederlassungsbewilligung ausgenommen Erwerbstätigkeit) that allows for income through a pension or private funds. There are limits on how many permits can be issued in Austria each year.

For this category of Austrian residency, single people need a minimum monthly income of €2,060.98 and couples need to earn at least €3,251.42 a month to be eligible. An additional amount of €318 for each child also applies. These figures are twice the standard amount of the General Social Insurance Act (ASVG).

However, immigration lawyer Osai Amiri advises any British people wanting to pursue an immigration route to Austria to inform themselves about the necessary requirements and prepare for a long application process.

Amiri told The Local: “Once they have determined which permit best suits their plans, they should start collecting and preparing the documents that they would have to submit to the Austrian authorities.

“Only after that should they travel to Austria and submit their application for the respective permit in Austria.

“Since the visa-free stay of British citizens is limited, they can in that way save themselves a lot of time and would not have to travel back and forth in order to obtain the decision of the Austrian authorities during the visa-free stay.”

Additionally, Amiri suggested British people can pursue other pathways to Austria, such as permits for students, artists and scientists. 

Useful links

Federal government official migration website

British in Austria

Vienna Business Agency

This article originally referenced the standard rate for the minimum monthly income for the gainful employment excepted residency permit, as stated on the Austrian migration website. It has now been updated to include the rate for third country nationals (twice the standard rate).

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