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July 05, 2017

Europe’s next migration crisis

We have reported on Italy’s strong reaction to a sudden spike in immigration from Africa. This is now turning into a pan-European crisis as Austria is threatening to block the Brenner border crossing, the most important transportation route between northern and southern Europe.

Hans Peter Doskozil, Austria’s Social Democratic defence minister, and Sebastian Kurz, foreign minister and recently elected chairman of the conservative ÖVP, are calling for the Brenner border between Italy and Austria to be closed - and this despite the fact that virtually no refugees have actually arrived at that border. Doskozil has ordered 750 soldiers to be deployed, if necessary. The premier of the state of Tyrol, Günther Platter, also a member of the ÖVP, is calling on the Austrian government to put the interests of Austria before observance of European law, as Der Standard reported. We should no longer ask the question whether populists will eventually take over in Austria. They already have. 

Not everybody in Austria is unreasonable. The papers quote the interior minister as saying that there is no need for such action. And the head of police for the affected areas agrees.

But politics intrudes. Austria and Italy are both in a pre-election phase. Austria fears that the rise in immigration to Italy - mostly from Africa through the Mediterranean - will eventually filter through to Italy’s northern border. Austria wants a pre-emptive strike to discourage refugees from seeking the northern route. 

Since the beginning of the year 83,700 refugees have officially arrived in Italy, a 20% increase. But this number is misleading because there has been a dramatic acceleration in arrivals recently. There is no spillover to Austria yet. Applications for asylum have actually fallen by 53% to just over 10,000 this year. But there will probably rise again.

In classic cold-war style, the Italian foreign minister Angelino Alfano yesterday called in the Austrian ambassador to register the Italian government’s protest. He said the planned action was not justified since there is no actual emergency on the ground. Alfano said Austria's planned action would have repercussions on the security cooperation between the two countries, as Corriere della Sera reports this morning.

Italy is generally disappointed by the European response to the refugee crisis. Spain and France have rejected allowing refugee ships headed for Italy to be diverted to their ports. There is no chance of the EU now agreeing on refugee quotas when it resisted similar calls by Germany in 2015 and 2016.

European interior ministers meet in Tallinn today to discuss measures to alleviate the pressure on Italy. The envisaged help is small. The Commission is earmarking €35m of additional funds for Italy, and will ask EU members to step up their contributions to the EU-Africa fund by €200m. While welcome, this is clearly not the help sought by Italy. 

Der Standard quotes Matteo Salvini, leader of the Lega Nord, as predicting that the refugee crisis will soon have political repurcussions in Italy. As we saw in German during 2016, a steady increase in refugees tends to favour extremist parties, albeit only temporarily as witnessed by the rise and decline of the AfD. But the timing is less fortunate for Italy where elections are due in early 2018.

A closure of the Brenner crossing is also an economic event of prime importance. Frankfurter Allgemeine reminds us this morning that this is the main commercial transport route between Italy and Germany. Each year 31m tonnes of freight pass the border on the road, and a further 13m tonnes through the railways. Half of the 31m overnight stays by tourists in Soutern Tyrol are by people who have travelled there through the Brenner crossing.

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July 05, 2017

Philippe: French need to kick spending addiction

Édouard Philippe delivered a distinct roadmap of the French government’s policies, with clear time frames, concrete measures, and targets. He was the one to talk about all those unpopular bits Emmanuel Macron left out in his speech.

Most of the press coverage focused on Philippe's call for France to kick its addition to spending. He evoked a comparison with Germany, saying that for every €100 Germany raised in taxes it spent €98, while France spent €125 for every €117 levied in taxes. Only last week the court of auditors revealed an €8bn funding shortfall in this year's budget, predicting that the deficit would once again surpass the 3% of GDP limit. Philippe committed to reduce the deficit below 3% this year, and target reducing public spending by 3% of national income over five years while also reducing the government’s tax-take by 1% over the same period. He said corporate tax would be gradually reduced from the current 33.3% to 25% by 2022. Labour reform details will be laid out at the end of the summer. 

Editorialists raved about the speech format, with short sentences, and not avoiding the more difficult subjects. The only points of disagreement were whether the planned savings are enough or not. There were also a lot of comments about Philippe's role compared to Emmanuel Macron's, whose speech seemed philosophical by comparison. 

After his statement there was a vote of confidence, and the government was confirmed with 370 out of 566 votes, according to Le Lab. More interesting is that only 67 voted against 129 abstained. Among Republicans, 75 abstained, only 23 voted against, and one voted for. The abstention is more an expression of scepticism than of trust, writes Françoise Fressoz. These are the ones whose trust the government need to build.

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