Record numbers of migrants arriving in Italy have sparked fears over the future of freedom of movement in the European Union.
Austria has said it will bring back border controls with Italy, where more than 130,000 migrants have arrived so far this year.
Both countries are members of the EU’s Schengen zone, the passport-free area which is one of the EU’s most cherished achievements.
So too is France, which also moved to toughen up policing of its border with Italy with officers and drones, out of fear the migrants would cross into French territory.
“They are suspending Schengen to try to prevent the migrants arriving on their territory,” said Luca Zaia, a leading member of the League party and the governor of the wealthy Veneto region in northern Italy.
Italy ‘failing to repatriate people’
The League is one of three parties in the governing coalition, led by Giorgia Meloni, the Italian prime minister.
He said the decision to close the borders not only breaches the principles of Schengen, but highlights Europe’s failure to have in place an effective process to return migrants or share the burden of migrants across the bloc.
“We are failing to repatriate people. Out of around 140,000-150,000 migrants who should be repatriated, we have managed to send back only 3,500-4,000,” Mr Zaia said.
“And the relocation system is not working either,” he said in reference to a stalled EU scheme to resettle migrants in countries across the bloc.
“One cannot pontificate at Italy’s expense, seeking welcome and integration in Lampedusa while armouring the Brenner border [with Austria]. This government will put an end to this shame”, Matteo Salvini, the League’s leader and deputy prime minister, said earlier this week.
Italy expects that up to 200,000 migrants will reach the country from across the Mediterranean by the end of the year.
“We are facing epoch-making numbers, a biblical exodus,” said Mr Zaia.
Schengen ‘in danger’
Rome has regularly warned since the 2015 migrant crisis that failure to tackle the illegal migration crisis will put the Schengen Zone at risk.
Brussels has justified a large increase in funding for its border agency on the grounds that tough protection of the EU’s external borders protects the passport-free travel area.
However much needed reforms to EU rules on asylum have foundered on deep divisions between member states.
Nancy Faeser, the German interior minister and Social Democrat, has said that she “sees Schengen in danger” and has followed a cautious line on beefing up border controls while simultaneously pushing for tougher EU measures to stop migrants reaching the bloc.
In Germany, border controls arrived on the Austrian border with the mass migration wave of 2015 and have been a fact of life ever since.
In light of the fact that most illegal border crossings now happen via Poland and the Czech Republic, conservative politicians are calling for the checks to be extended all the way up the country’s 800-mile eastern border.
Calls to put police on German border
Speaking on Thursday, Armin Schuster, interior minister of the eastern state of Saxony, appealed to Berlin to “put federal police directly on the border”.
“The clear justification for stationary controls is that I can then reject entry on the border, I am not allowed to do so once someone has entered the country,” the politician from the Christian Democrats added.
Currently, Germany only runs dragnet searches in the hinterland behind its eastern borders, which the government insists are “more successful” than stationary controls.
However official statistics show that migrants are almost never turned back when they arrive through Poland.
EU rules allow for the temporary return of border controls between member states in certain circumstances, including migratory pressure on the bloc’s border countries.
However, the return of such controls is controversial in a union which prizes freedom of movement, even after their temporary return during the 2015 crisis and coronavirus pandemic.
During the pandemic, when many borders were closed, Emmanuel Macron warned fellow EU leaders that the “death of Schengen” would put the “survival of the European Project” at stake.
Negotiations to begin
The European Commission has already threatened Austria with legal action for the border checks it carries out on fellow EU member Slovenia.
They were introduced during the 2015 migrant crisis and have remained in place, despite the need to ask Brussels for permission to extend the controls every six months.
EU lawmakers are set to begin negotiations on the Schengen Code in the coming days in a bid to harmonise when the rules can be suspended or not.
Pope Francis on Saturday urged European governments to welcome migrants instead of viewing them as invaders.
On the second day of his visit to France’s Mediterranean port of Marseille, the Pontiff said: “Those who risk their lives at sea do not invade, they look for welcome.”
Noting the risk to the lives of migrants if they are not taken to safety, he warned against turning “the Mediterranean, the mare nostrum, from the cradle of civilisation into the mare mortuum, the graveyard of dignity.”