Why talk of barriers is opening up old wounds in South Tyrol

Austria on Friday backtracked on plans to tighten border controls at the Brenner Pass. But the mayor of Brenner is not so convinced. He tells The Local why.

Why talk of barriers is opening up old wounds in South Tyrol
Brenner train station. Photo: Angela Giuffrida/The Local Italy

For Franz Kompatscher, the mayor of the South Tyrolean town of Brenner, the friction between Italy and Austria over refugees not only threatens to exacerbate the dilemma, but also open up old wounds.

“Even just talking about building a fence and making boundaries hurts us deeply,” he told The Local.

“It’s a bad symbol.”

Kompatscher, who was born among the pristine surroundings of Colle Isarco, a hamlet nestled in the mountains close to Italy's northern border with Austria, can put his mind to rest. For now.

The Brenner Pass, a crucial transport corridor at the Austria-Italy border. Photo: Angela Giuffrida

On Friday, Austria, which ceded the southern part of Tyrol to Italy after the First World War, said it would no longer seek to bolster anti-migrant checks at the Alpine Brenner Pass, a major European transport corridor and crucial lifeline for Italian exports to northern Europe.

The decision came after weeks of terse exchanges between the two countries. Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi said the plans went “flagrantly” against EU law, while Austria, which accepted 90,000 asylum requests in 2015, told Italy to stem the flow of migrants across the frontier, or else a 375-metre fence would go up.

The hardline approach was effective: Rome dispatched over 100 extra guards to patrol the crossing point, while train checks at Brenner station have been reinforced – a move that led to a marked drop in migrant numbers, and to Austria backing down.

“There are still migrants who come every day and try to board trains to Innsbruck, but not as many as a few weeks ago,” a guard at Brenner told The Local on Friday.

Though Kompatscher sympathizes with Austria, whose population, at 8.74 million, is smaller than the northern Italian region of Lombardy, over the refugee burden, the uncertainty surrounding the country’s political future is making him nervous.

Chancellor Werner Faymann quit last week, two months after saying Austria would no longer be a “distribution hub” for refugees and just weeks after the right-wing Freedom Party (FPÖ), led by Norbert Hofer, triumphed in the first round of the presidential election.

“We hope that this decision remains in place,” Kompatscher said.

“We expect things to stay calm for the next few weeks, or two months. But everything could change. We don’t know yet what will happen to Austria’s government. The summer will also inevitably bring more migrants – it’s not a problem that’s going to go away anytime soon.”

Brenner last year became a transport hub for migrants travelling north. Photo: Angela Giuffrida

Last summer, Brenner became a transit hub for migrants who arrived by boat in southern Italy before travelling north, with many crossing over to Austria unchallenged.

Meanwhile, Italy last week eclipsed Greece in terms of migrant arrivals for the first time since June 2015, with 8,370 landing in April alone.

With fears of a summer revival, Austria is now trying to drastically decrease the number of asylum claims in 2016 after processing 90,000 – the second-highest among EU states per capita – last year.

“They're aiming for 37,000 and are already at 16,000. So by the end of July they'll reach the target,” Kompatscher added.

“What will happen after that? For us, it’s a concern.”

The threats to raise a boundary at the Brenner Pass, 21 years after customs and immigration posts were removed, were not just empty words: on Friday, hours before Austria’s announcement, men could be seen preparing what The Local was told were areas allocated for prefabricated buildings to accommodate checkpoints. Austria said such preparations would continue as a precautionary measure – that is, if Italian migrant checks fall by the wayside.

But apart from the risk to trade and tourism in the predominantly German-speaking South Tyrol, the idea of a “fence”, even if intended figuratively, has triggered angst among the population of 511,000.

Many still struggle to accept the fact that the region is part of Italy, with several calls made in recent years, from both sides of the border, for a referendum on reunification with North Tyrol. The most recent came from Austrian right-wing leader Heinz-Christian Strache.

When a line was drawn between the two in 1919, a formerly united province, which had been part of Austria for five centuries, was thrown into disarray, paving the way for several turbulent decades.

Not only was the area forcibly Italianized under Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini’s rule, a pact between him and Adolf Hitler saw many forced to move into the German Reich and renounce their homeland.

Terrorism marred much of the 1960s, as activists sought for the region to be handed back to Austria. It has only been since 1972, when the region was granted autonomy, that it has been relatively peaceful, and prosperous.

Read more: Italy's South Tyrol: where an identity crisis lingers

But it has only really been since 1995, when customs controls were done away with at the Brenner Pass, often hailed as a symbol of successful European integration, that the South Tyroleans have felt more at ease.

“It was a joyous moment,” Kompatscher said.

“We feel Tyrolese; the idea of building a fence to our fatherland again stirs a lot of emotion. We hope it never comes true.” 


How Europe’s population is changing and what the EU is doing about it

The populations of countries across Europe are changing, with some increasing whilst others are falling. Populations are also ageing meaning the EU is having to react to changing demographics.

How Europe's population is changing and what the EU is doing about it

After decades of growth, the population of the European Union decreased over the past two years mostly due to the hundreds of thousands of deaths caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The latest data from the EU statistical office Eurostat show that the EU population was 446.8 million on 1 January 2022, 172,000 fewer than the previous year. On 1 January 2020, the EU had a population of 447.3 million.

This trend is because, in 2020 and 2021 the two years marked by the crippling pandemic, there have been more deaths than births and the negative natural change has been more significant than the positive net migration.

But there are major differences across countries. For example, in numerical terms, Italy is the country where the population has decreased the most, while France has recorded the largest increase.

What is happening and how is the EU reacting?

In which countries is the population growing?

In 2021, there were almost 4.1 million births and 5.3 million deaths in the EU, so the natural change was negative by 1.2 million (more broadly, there were 113,000 more deaths in 2021 than in 2020 and 531,000 more deaths in 2020 than in 2019, while the number of births remained almost the same).

Net migration, the number of people arriving in the EU minus those leaving, was 1.1 million, not enough to compensate.

A population growth, however, was recorded in 17 countries. Nine (Belgium, Denmark, Ireland, France, Cyprus, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands and Sweden) had both a natural increase and positive net migration.

READ ALSO: IN NUMBERS: Five things to know about Germany’s foreign population

In eight EU countries (the Czech Republic, Germany, Estonia, Spain, Lithuania, Austria, Portugal and Finland), the population increased because of positive net migration, while the natural change was negative.

The largest increase in absolute terms was in France (+185,900). The highest natural increase was in Ireland (5.0 per 1,000 persons), while the biggest growth rate relative to the existing population was recorded in Luxembourg, Ireland, Cyprus and Malta (all above 8.0 per 1,000 persons).

In total, 22 EU Member States had positive net migration, with Luxembourg (13.2 per 1 000 persons), Lithuania (12.4) and Portugal (9.6) topping the list.

Births and deaths in the EU from 1961 to 2021 (Eurostat)

Where is the population declining?

On the other hand, 18 EU countries had negative rates of natural change, with deaths outnumbering births in 2021.

Ten of these recorded a population decline. In Bulgaria, Italy, Hungary, Poland, and Slovenia population declined due to a negative natural change, while net migration was slightly positive.

In Croatia, Greece, Latvia, Romania and Slovakia, the decrease was both by negative natural change and negative net migration.

READ ALSO: Italian class sizes set to shrink as population falls further

The largest fall in population was reported in Italy, which lost over a quarter of a million (-253,100).

The most significant negative natural change was in Bulgaria (-13.1 per 1,000 persons), Latvia (-9.1), Lithuania (-8.7) and Romania (-8.2). On a proportional basis, Croatia and Bulgaria recorded the biggest population decline (-33.1 per 1,000 persons).

How is the EU responding to demographic change?

From 354.5 million in 1960, the EU population grew to 446.8 million on 1 January 2022, an increase of 92.3 million. If the growth was about 3 million persons per year in the 1960s, it slowed to about 0.7 million per year on average between 2005 and 2022, according to Eurostat.

The natural change was positive until 2011 and turned negative in 2012 when net migration became the key factor for population growth. However, in 2020 and 2021, this no longer compensated for natural change and led to a decline.

READ ALSO: IN NUMBERS: One in four Austrian residents now of foreign origin

Over time, says Eurostat, the negative natural change is expected to continue given the ageing of the population if the fertility rate (total number of children born to each woman) remains low.

This poses questions for the future of the labour market and social security services, such as pensions and healthcare.

The European Commission estimates that by 2070, 30.3 per cent of the EU population will be 65 or over compared to 20.3 per cent in 2019, and 13.2 per cent is projected to be 80 or older compared to 5.8 per cent in 2019.

The number of people needing long-term care is expected to increase from 19.5 million in 2016 to 23.6 million in 2030 and 30.5 million in 2050.

READ ALSO: How foreigners are changing Switzerland

However, demographic change impacts different countries and often regions within the same country differently.

When she took on the Presidency of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen appointed Dubravka Šuica, a Croatian politician, as Commissioner for Democracy and Demography to deal with these changes.

Among measures in the discussion, in January 2021, the Commission launched a debate on Europe’s ageing society, suggesting steps for higher labour market participation, including more equality between women and men and longer working lives.

In April, the Commission proposed measures to make Europe more attractive for foreign workers, including simplifying rules for non-EU nationals who live on a long-term basis in the EU. These will have to be approved by the European Parliament and the EU Council.

In the fourth quarter of this year, the Commission also plans to present a communication on dealing with ‘brain drain’ and mitigate the challenges associated with population decline in regions with low birth rates and high net emigration.

This article is published in cooperation with Europe Street News, a news outlet about citizens’ rights in the EU and the UK.