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25th Feb 2024

EU blocks Austria on Italy border checks

  • Austria wants border checks with Italy (Photo: Reuters)

Austrian authorities pushed to extend their internal border control checks to include all of Italy but were shot down by other EU states.

The Council, representing member states, on Thursday (12 May), agreed to extend existing border control checks in Austria, Germany, Denmark, Sweden and Norway for another six months.

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Member states approved a recommendation by the EU commission to extend existing checks because of "deficiencies" in the protection of EU external borders in Greece.

The recommendation authorised Austria to continue checks at its borders with Hungary and Slovenia.

Two EU officials confirmed Vienna had at an EU ambassadors meeting on Wednesday attempted to expand the scope of its existing controls to also include Italy.

"The question came from Austria: 'What about all of our borders, what about our border with Italy? Can we not use controls there?' The commission said ‘No' and the council said ‘No'," said the EU official.

Another EU official said Austria had also attempted it "but didn't get support".

A diplomat in Brussels said the Austrians had wanted to have some flexibility, but the EU commission insisted the extension would only apply to checks already in place.

Brenner Pass

Austria's interior minister Wolfgang Sobotka in April had threatened to seal the border at the Brenner Pass with Italy over fears refugees would seek to enter from Italy.

Plans are in place to erect a 370 metre chain-link fence with four checkpoints on the Alpine highway that links the two nations.

"The plan is to be ready to put into practice a border management like between Austria and Slovenia, if necessary," noted a diplomat.

Italy's prime minister Matteo Renzi has critised any barrier along the pass by the Austrians as "flagrantly against European rules, as well as against history, against logic and against the future".

But the move by Austria point to growing fears in Vienna that a sudden influx of people will cross from Libya into Italy over the summer months.

Austria can invoke a different set of rules under the Schengen Borders Code to impose controls with Italy, should it so choose.

"They [Austria] can unilaterally introduce controls for eight months if they are proportionate and justified by the evidence," noted the EU official.

EU law allows member states to impose a two-month control in unforeseen circumstances if there is an emergency. It can then impose another six months for foreseen circumstances.

The EU commissioner for migration Dimitris Avramopoulos has no desire to see any controls at the Brenner pass.

Last week, he sent a letter to the Austrian authorities outlining EU rules on the matter.

"I have sent a letter that we do not agree with the introduction of border controls or border checks," Avramopoulos told euro-deputies in Strasbourg on Wednesday.

Greek deficiencies

The existing internal controls in Austria, Germany, Denmark, Sweden and Norway will be maintained despite a dramatic drop in the flow of refugees into Europe when compared to April and May last year.

The move to extend the checks was launched following an unannounced visit by experts from the EU border agency Frontex to verify Greek border controls last November.

They said Greece had "serious deficiencies" on how it manages its borders, posing a larger existential threat over the entire passport-free Schengen area. The threat gave the EU the legal basis to prolong the checks.

Greece, for its part, denies that it cannot manage its own borders and notes it has met some 43 out of 50 recommendations from the EU commission to plug the gaps.

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