ITALY AUSTRIA BRENNER BORDER CLASHES, migrants, police.jpg
Photograph: EPA/CHRISTIAN BRUNA

Cars, trucks and trains still cross the Brenner mountain pass freely

The lines run from a border stone erected after World War I, on to a roundabout and to an old customs office, and finally to another border stone near a set of rail tracks that also pass over the busiest mountain pass along the Alps.

Austria has said it may erect a fence at the Brenner Pass to control a possible surge of migrant arrivals, even though the crossing lies within Europe's borderless Schengen zone.

The yellow markings seem to herald such a step. However, an Austrian police spokesman in Innsbruck says nothing has happened yet.

"Preparations have not yet started."

Nonetheless, construction workers have started working on a roof that will cover the road so that police will be shielded from bad weather as they check vehicles.

Austria has not made it clear when it might start strict controls at the Brenner Pass, arguing that this will depend on whether Rome is able to stop migrants who arrived on Italy's southern shores from traveling north.

After the resignation of Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann on Monday, interim chancellor Reinhold Mitterlehner said that Austria's asylum policies would not change.

However, Vienna's announcement and plans have already done damage to its historically sensitive relations with Rome.

Dismissing Austrian moves as driven by internal politics, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi told state television Sunday that the pass will not be closed "because it is against European rules, against history, and, let me say it, against the future."

People living at the Brenner border see the possible Austrian border controls in historical and political terms.

"The Brenner embodies Europe," said Franz Kompatscher, the mayor of Brenner, a small community of 2,000 inhabitants on the Italian side of the border.

The town belongs to Italy's German-speaking South Tyrol region, which was split from Austria's Tyrol province in the wake of World War I.

For decades, travellers faced strict customs checks.

"Many had experienced the border as something painful," Kompatscher said.

When Austria and Italy stopped controls in 1998 as they became part of Europe's Schengen area, Tyroleans in both countries celebrated the event.

Tyroleans were not the only ones who profited. Tourists from Austria and Germany have found it easier to drive to Italy for vacations, weekends trips and to go shopping.

These visitors may stay away if they fear traffic jams caused by Austrian border police, Kompatscher warned.

Violent left-wing demonstrations against Austria's plans have already caused problems for a local outlet centre at the Brenner Pass that attracts 1.7 million people each year. Potential customers have stayed away on recent weekends.

Luca Critelli, who manages asylum issues for South Tyrol's administration criticized the planned fence.

"Most of the refugees try to cross the border by train. A fence won't help at all," he said. "Such a fortification would become a magnet for protests," he added.

Although Italy's government is trying to stop Austria's plans with the help of the European Commission, the EU executive could not actually stop border controls, a legal advisor to the Austrian government said.

"The EU could issue a negative opinion, but the border controls could be continued," Walter Obwexer told the South Tyrolean newspaper Dolomiten.

In any case, South Tyrol has developed contingency plans in case Austria starts rejecting masses of migrants and refugees at the Brenner.

Arrivals could be hosted by communities in the border area or in the Trentino region, south of South Tyrol, Critelli explained. These regions do not yet face a refugee crisis. And South Tyrol and its 590,000 inhabitants currently host only 900 asylum seekers.

"That's only a fraction of the burden of Tyrol or Bavaria," Critelli acknowledged, referring to the Austrian province and the large southern German state less than an hour's drive away from the Brenner Pass.

Tyrolean police have picked up 5,700 migrants on the Austrian side so far this year who crossed over from Italy. In addition, Tyrolean authorities have had to deal with 7,000 migrants since January who were trying to enter Germany but were pushed back by German border police.

"Italy and Austria should talk to each other now, before stakes are driven into the ground," said South Tyrol Governor Arno Kompatscher, no relation to Brenner's mayor.

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