Sunday, July 09, 2017

Austria, Italy and refugees

Wolfgang Münchau‏'s Eurointelligence describes a new uptick in EU problems over immigration in Europe’s next migration crisis 07/05/2017 (link does to the most recent date on the website). Austria and Italy both have elections in 2018 and the parties in both countries are dancing around the immigration issue. Austria's ruling coalition parties, the SPÖ (Social Democrats) and ÖVP (Christian Democrats) came up with a diplomatic stunt this past week of announcing via the Defense Minister and the Foreign Minister that they were sending soldiers and tanks to guard the border to Italy at the Brenner Pass. This didn't go over well in Italy. Eurointelligence relates:

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. [my emphasis]
As Eurointelligence reports, "the Brenner border crossing [is] the most important transportation route between northern and southern Europe." And, more specifically, "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." Angela Merkel can't be pleased by this little flap. Angie doesn't like such inconveniences.

The Austrian Chancellor is Christian Kern (SPÖ) and his Foreign Minister is Sebastian Kurz (ÖVP), who turns 32 in August. He has earned a lot of popularity by taking a hard line against immigration. He hopes to become Europe's youngest Chancellor in the election this year. This stunt with Italy was floated by the SPÖ Defense Minister and endorsed by Kurz. But then the ÖVP Interior Minister said he hadn't given it his required approval yet. And on Wednesday the Chancellor backed off the idea. (Soldaten auf dem Brenner: Nach harscher Kritik rudert SPÖ zurück/APA 05.07.2017) It has the look of a planned stunt all the way, although politicians do just blunder into embarrassments sometimes.

But it shows how toxic the immigration issue has become in European politics. And the nationalism generated by the economic crisis, especially the draconian measures against Greece on which Germany insisted, contributed to the temptation to strike nationalistic postures. against the EU.

I struggle to see why Austrian politicians play the immigration game the way they do. In the current situation, around 100,000 refugees are estimated to have arrived in Europe via the "Mediterranean route" during the first half of this year. Italy has taken on 85,000 of them. There has been no notable uptick in arrivals to Austria. Italy is getting additional EU resources to deal with their current immigrant load, though probably not overly generous given the burden they are bearing right now. So it seems particularly obnoxious for Austrian politicians of both the Austrian government parties to be playing this game.

The EU treaty arrangement under the Schengen Treaty is that the countries on the outer boundaries of the Union are responsible for controlling the immigration into the Union. Otherwise, the borders between EU member countries are required to have open borders, i.e., no border controls, like the borders between US states. There are exceptions, but the EU has to authorize those exceptions. Individual countries can't just decide on their own to do it.

And it's not just a matter of the psychological effect. Slowing down the traffic through the Brenner Pass will cost companies money. And the EU, dominated by neoliberal economics, really cares about that.

Profil columnist Christian Rainer provides a cynical take on the refugee issue, which also illustrates how difficult it seems to be for many Europeans to envision a decent solution to the refugee problem, which will go on for a long time: Potemkinsche Positionen Profil 24.06.2017. Or maybe it's just an example of that old Viennese attitude, "The situation is hopeless but not serious." (The quote is attributed to Karl Kraus, "In Berlin things are serious but not hopeless; in Vienna they are hopeless but not serious.")

Rainer, writing before this latest clown show stunt with the Italian border, grumps about the theatrics of the governing parties' anti-immigration posturing. But then he basically dismisses the whole idea that providing aid to African countries from which increasing numbers of immigrants are coming to Europe as hopeless. Like I said, a cynical viewpoint. Or maybe more accurately, an unserious viewpoint dressed up a worldly cynicism.


EU-Millionenspritze soll Italien in Flüchtlingskrise entlasten Salzburger Nachrichten/APA 05.07.2017

Italien: Flüchtlingsschiffe sollen auch andere EU-Häfen ansteuern
Salzburger Nachrichten 02.07.2017


Big Small_Travel said...

Thanks for posting this! I was recently in Italy, and could see how this refugee could get out of hand. Currently, if numbers keep up the situation could get worse in Italy and all the countries within W. Europe up until Sweden at least. Do you think that Italy will seriously close their ports? I heart that Italy was threatening to do this. I think it may be wise to have restricted access thus stemming and curtailing the large flow. What do you think?

Bruce Miller said...

At the moment, it sounds like Italy was using the threat to press for more EU cooperation and funding.