Italy has issued a plea to the rest of the EU to assist in handling a surge in migrants from Africa and the Middle East, which has alarmed the Austrian government, precipitating a move to fortify its border with Italy in case the situation worsens.
Austria took in hundreds of thousands of refugees in 2015, placing a severe strain on the state's resources and causing a voter backlash that brought a conservative government to power. Now that government is warning that it will send 750 troops and 4 armored vehicles to the Brenner Pass crossing with Italy if history appears to be repeating itself.
Rome is none too happy about the prospect of more Austrian troops on its border and has summoned the Austrian ambassador for talks.
Austria' plans to use 750 soldiers and four armored vehicles in an effort to block migrants crossing its border from Italy, the government said Tuesday.
Austria is increasing its military presence at Brenner Pass, a key trade and transport route through the Alps, officials said.
Asylum seekers are crossing the Mediterranean from the coast of Libya into Italy -- a distance of 290 miles. So far this year, 101,000 migrants have entered Europe from the Mediterranean, and 2,247 people have died or are missing at sea, according to data from the Missing Migrants Project.
Italy also has summoned Austria's ambassador Rene Pollitzer.
The troops are on standby and will be sent to the border if there is an urgent need, officials said.
"I expect border controls will be introduced very soon," Peter Doskozil, the defence minister, told the newspaper Kronen Zeitung. "But we see how the situation in Italy is becoming more acute and we have to be prepared to avoid a situation comparable to summer 2015."
Reuters is reporting that the Austrian interior minister is denying there is an emergency and criticized defense officials for their actions:
"I am frankly surprised by the comments" from Doskozil, Minniti said in a statement. "This is an unjustified and unprecedented initiative which, if not immediately corrected, will inevitably create repercussions on security cooperation."
An Austrian defense ministry spokesman said controls would include Brenner and that four armored vehicles had already been deployed to the area to block roads, with 750 troops poised to be brought in within 72 hours to deal with emergencies.
"These are not battle tanks. These are armored vehicles without weapons which could block roads. These were already used during the refugee crisis of 2015/16 at the Spielfeld border crossing (with Slovenia)," he said.
Austria coordinated with nearby Balkan countries last year to effectively close what was then the main route into Europe for migrants. The move drew complaints at the time that it was undermining the EU's principle of free movement, though Vienna says it did what it had to do to safeguard its borders.
Italy, alongside other states on the bloc's fringes, has complained it is now bearing the brunt and the cost of the migrant crisis. It said last year that any plans to introduce controls at the Brenner Pass, a major road and rail link between northern and southern Europe, would break EU law.
The internal divisions in Austria underscore the sensitivity of EU member nations to the idea that there should be border controls to prevent unwanted guests from arriving. Meanwhile, voters have an entirely different idea regarding what to do about the refugees. The conflict will only escalate as it looks like another surge in refugees into Italy is underway.
The EU is dealing with a problem of its own making. Instead of being sensible about refugees, they simply threw open the door and invited everyone in. It's a mystery why anyone is suprised at the voter backlash these policies have created. Nor should it surprise anyone that governments on the front lines of this surge in refugees should be having second thoughts.