EU in crisis: Austria threatens to close border as Italy considers handing migrants visas
The European Union is at breaking point as Austria threatens to shut its borders in response to Italy considering granting migrants visas to travel the bloc.
Austrian ministers have hit out over the Italian proposal. Source: Getty Images
Austrian ministers have hit out over the Italian proposal, with the Interior Minister Wolfgang Sobotka branding the plans "unacceptable".
Italy is considering issuing temporary visas to allow migrants to travel around the EU, in a calculated move intended to pressure its EU neighbours to do more to help ease the migration crisis.
But during a visit to the Austrian-Italian border, and a furious Mr Sobotka declared Austria would have no qualms in installing border controls at key locations.
He said: "Italy granting humanitarian visas to migrants is unacceptable. In that case, we would immediately introduce controls in Brenner.
Italy has long complained it is being left alone to cope with the brunt of the refugee crisis. Source: Getty Images
"Humanitarian visas are a European issue, not Italian.”
Italy has long complained it is being left alone to cope with the brunt of the refugee crisis with high numbers of migrants arriving on Italian shores, as the country marks an entry point to the EU on one of the most popular routes for people arriving from Libya.
Deputy Foreign Minister Mario Giro said Italy is considering issuing 200,000 temporary migrant visas, allowing them to travel throughout the EU in a bid to force other countries to take note of the problem.
He said Italy wanted to avoid unilateral gestures, but is against the strict application of EU law which keeps migrants in their first country of arrival.
Mr Giro told Il Manifesto: “We are in a tug of war.
“We don’t accept being turned into a European hotspot, or feeling guilty because we rescue people, so deciding what to do with the migrants who arrive is everyone’s responsibility.”
Italy said it wanted to avoid unilateral gestures. Source: Getty Images
It was too early to say when or how many such permits could be issued, Mr Giro said, adding that the Italian authorities who receive asylum requests already have the power to grant them.
So far this year more than 93,000 mainly sub-Saharan African and Bangladeshi migrants have arrived by boat in southern Italy, a 17 per cent increase when compared to the same period last year, the Italian interior ministry said.
Enzo Bianco, mayor of the Sicilian port town of Catania, where 10,000 migrants rescued off the coast of Libya have been brought so far in 2017, said issuing the visas would put pressure on other countries to help.
He said: "We are allowed to use these tools, and it's a good thing to remind Europe about its duty to be more responsible.
"This is a way of grabbing Europe's attention and saying we must tackle this emergency together."
Austrian minister Mr Sobotka noted the border town of Tyrol, in the western Austrian state of Brenner, was coping with the number of migrants but “the pressure increases and we need to be ready."
Governor of Tyrol, Guenther Platter, added the town was ready to defend itself. Source: Getty Images
The governor of Tyrol, Guenther Platter, added the town was ready to defend itself if the EU failed them.
He said: “Although Brenner is a symbolic place, Austria is ready to introduce controls if Europe does not respond.
"A situation like the one of 2015 can’t be repeated, which is why controls will increase.”
Austrian Minister Sebastian Kurz took a harder line against proposals, effectively saying the border would be shut down.
He said the idea of issuing the visas "would be absurd because if people could cross, more and more people would come and this would not alleviate the burden for Italy and Greece.
“If this happened, we would protect the Brenner border. Of course we would not allow people to go north freely."
And EU rules side with Austria, with Brussels noting earlier this month in the EU action plan that Italy must "make use of restrictions on residence and free movement and avoid providing travel documents to asylum seekers to prevent secondary migration movements" between EU countries.
Mr Sobotka is due to meet Italian minister Marco Minniti in Rome next week to discuss the situation.