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.