Merkel pledges to defuse Italo-Austrian border row

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Thursday she would do her utmost to defend free travel within the European Union after several members of the bloc tightened their border policies in response to a huge migrant influx.

"I will do all that is possible so that problems are solved in ways other that through border closures," Merkel said in reference to tensions between Italy and Austria over a Vienna threat to close the Brenner Pass frontier.

Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, hosting a press conference with Merkel in Rome, said a Brenner closure would be "wrong and anachronistic" and fumed at comments made by Austrian far-right presidential candidate Norbert Hofer.

In a Thursday interview with Italian daily La Repubblica, Hofer compared Renzi and Merkel to traffickers of migrants across the Mediterranean, saying their alleged open-door policies were encouraging arrivals.

"It is a shameful remark which many respectable people in Austria should reflect on," the Italian premier said ahead of a May 22 presidential run-off in which Hofer is facing Green challenger Alexander Van der Bellen.

Renzi and Merkel said they discussed at length the "Migration Compact," an Italian government paper which calls on the European Union to offer African countries money to tighten border controls, emulating a controversial deal the bloc has signed with Turkey.

Merkel praised it, but confirmed she did not like the idea to fund it via EU bond issuances. "It does not matter if it comes with or without eurobonds, what is important is that the Migration Compact brings the resources to help Africa," Renzi replied.

He said there was no question of "Italy vs Germany," and quipped that the appointment of Italian Carlo Ancelotti to coach Merkel's favourite football team Bayern Munich showed that "Italian and German destinies are intertwined."

Merkel issued a warning to Poland and others opposed to Wednesday proposals by the European Commission to fine countries which refuse to take in refugees. "We cannot have a common Europe rejecting all forms of burden sharing," she said.

Italo-German talks also focused on EU economic issues, amid calls from Rome to further relax austerity policies, Renzi and Merkel said they would meet again in August for an Italo-German summit in Maranello, the northern Italian town home to Ferrari.

The Italian premier rebutted criticism voiced by Bundesbank President Jens Weidmann last week that Italy is not doing enough to reduce public debt, which rose to a record 132.7 per cent of gross domestic product in 2015.

"You can be absolutely certain that we know by ourselves what we have to do, we discuss it with our European partners and we don't need any foreign [central] bank governor to tell us," Renzi said.

Merkel, often seen as the guardian of fiscal discipline in Europe, commended Renzi's governing record, mentioning reforms of labour legislation and of the Senate, and said stronger growth in Europe would help alleviate Rome's debt burden.

She travelled to Rome to take part in a ceremony on Friday for the awarding of Germany's famed Charlemagne Prize to Pope Francis, given to public figures in recognition of their contribution to European unity.

EU leaders were also scheduled to attend. Later Thursday, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, European Council President Donald Tusk and European Parliament President Martin Schulz were set to take part in a debate with Renzi on the future of the EU.

Last update: Fri, 24/06/2016 - 08:49
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