When Austria threatened to re-introduce border controls at the Brenner Pass in April, it hit a nerve with Italy, and not merely because it risked exacerbating the refugee crisis.
Fearing the impact on trade and the economy – the historic crossing point is a crucial lifeline for exports to northern Europe – the Italian government was swift to react, eventually leading Austria to back down, so long as its southern neighbour stemmed the flow of migrants across the border.
Photo: The Local Italy
The notion of "building a wall" is also a sensitive issue in South Tyrol, which still struggles to heal from old wounds after the region was annexed to Italy by the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the end of the First World War.
Austria softened its stance a week before presidential elections were held, in which the far-right Freedom Party was narrowly defeated by the independent but Green-backed candidate Alexander van der Bellen.
But the anti-refugee party’s leader, Norbert Hofer, will now get another chance to become the first far-right head of state in the EU after Austria’s constitutional court annulled the result of the May 22nd election and ordered a re-run on October 2nd.
A victory for Hofer could reignite tensions at the Brenner Pass if the party seeks to reintroduce border controls 21 years after customs and immigration posts were removed.
“It’s incomprehensible to us that Austria should want to control the Brenner Pass,” Arno Kompatscher, the governor of South Tyrol, told reporters in Rome on Wednesday.
“It’s not just an economic problem in terms of the crossing point being crucial for trade, but it is also a political problem. It sends out a bad message.
"The Brenner Pass became a central part of the EU discussion a few months ago – if there are controls at the pass, an important symbol of EU unification, it could kill Europe. We hope that the issue of migrants, and fears related to them, will not influence the election campaign."
Adding to the concerns is the continued arrival of migrants in Italy’s south. More than 3,200 people were rescued in the Mediterranean on Tuesday, bringing the number of migrants who have landed in Italy so far this year to over 80,000.
Kompatscher told The Local that “better controls” have been implemented across Italy which have helped to stymie the movement of migrants towards the north of the country as they seek to enter more prosperous EU states.
Under a government plan, South Tyrol, which has a population of 511,000, must take in 0.9 percent of the total number of migrants who seek asylum in Italy.
As the measure got underway last year, migrant centres were hurriedly built across the region, with the majority being housed in the city of Bolzano.
Apart from in the comune of Brenner, other centres, managed by the charity, Caritas, have sprung up in Vipiteno, Malles, Tesimo, Vandoies, Val di Vizze and Brunico.
Last summer, thousands of migrants managed to cross over to Austria unchallenged, with the country processing 90,000 asylum claims – the second-highest among EU states per capita – in 2015.
Italy’s tiny neighbour, which has a population of 8.74 million, is now trying to more than halve that figure this year.
Kompatscher said there are currently 1,000 asylum seekers in South Tyrol and that the migrant situation is “under control”.
“We don’t have the same amount of people in transit as in 2015,” he added.
“So it’s not a problem right now. But people continue to arrive in the south, and we don’t know yet how Italy will continue to manage the situation. And depending on the Austrian elections, things could change.”