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Italians Concerned By Austria's Plan To Add Border Controls


President Obama is in Germany discussing European problems, but it's hard to miss his references to politics here.


Here's the president at a press conference yesterday.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: In this globalized world, it is very difficult for us to simply build walls.

INSKEEP: And here's the president again in a talk today.


OBAMA: An us versus them mentality that tries to blame our problems on the other, somebody who doesn't look like us or doesn't pray like us, whether it's immigrants or Muslims...

INSKEEP: Europeans, like Americans, are debating the global movements of people and the threats some may pose.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We're about to visit the latest European flashpoint. Some migrants cross the Mediterranean to Italy then try to keep moving north. But Italy's neighbor Austria plans to introduce controls on their common border.

INSKEEP: NPR's Sylvia Poggioli is near that border, the Brenner Pass, which sounds scenic, Sylvia. What's it look like?

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Oh, it's very beautiful. We're in the middle of the Dolomite mountains, snowcapped mountains, 4,500 feet, lots of beautiful slopes with pine trees all along them. It's very nice here.

INSKEEP: Well, how are people reacting to the idea of border controls in that pass?

POGGIOLI: Well, most of the people I talked to are very much opposed. When I got here, I couldn't even find the border. This is an area that's dotted by large, designer outlets. Many Austrians and Germans come to shop here. It was outside an outlet I met Rosalia Sbacchi who showed me exactly where the invisible borderline is. She moved here from Sicily two years ago to work at an outlet. She's dismayed by news of a new barrier.

ROSALIA SBACCHI: (Through interpreter) It's a disaster, a tragedy. We depend on tourists who come weekends to shop here. This barrier will create lots of problems.

POGGIOLI: But at the Olympia Cafe on the Italian side of the border, employee Christina Borella (ph) thinks the new Austrian barrier is a good idea.

CHRISTINA BORELLA: (Foreign language spoken).

POGGIOLI: I think we should build one too, she says. The woman next to her asks, where? In the Mediterranean Sea? Why not? Christina replies. We should be much stricter. We can't live here with all these people piling up on top of us.

But behind the counter, at the espresso machine, Hushon Shams (ph) shakes his head. He himself is a migrant. He left his native Iran in 1972.

HUSHON SHAMS: (Through interpreter) I am totally against it, and not just for economic reasons. A few years ago, they eliminated borders. Now they want to impose them again. It's not fair. They cannot call it the European Union anymore.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: No border. No nation. Stop deportation.

POGGIOLI: On Sunday, several hundred demonstrators from many parts of Italy braved subfreezing temperatures and snow flurries to protest the barrier. One of the march organizers, Borellino Preioni (ph), said they came in defense of freedom of movement and for a Europe open to people.

BORELLINO PREIONI: The injuries to transform Italy as Greece in a big and almost refugees camp where migrants - they wait for expulsion. Why do we think that another kind of policy or migration is needed in Europe? We diffuse the death in the Mediterranean Sea.

POGGIOLI: Marchers wore orange life jackets, a sign of solidarity, with the thousands of nameless migrants who drowned trying to reach Europe. Italian police lined the roadway on the Italian side, while a phalanx of Austrian police, in full anti-riot gear, formed a blockade across the secondary road leading into Austria.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Speaking in foreign language).

POGGIOLI: When the demonstrators came up close, the Austrian officers used batons and pepper spray to push them back. No one was injured, but one demonstrator was arrested, prompting the others to stage a sit-in until he was released.

One of the marchers came from Poland. Evelina Kevmeskia (ph) is working with migrants in the city of Bolzano on an art project. She's outraged by the wave of xenophobia and fear of migrants sweeping many parts of Europe and the loss of memory.

EVELINA KEVMESKIA: Polish people and Eastern Europeans were in this situation, like, not so long ago. And now people already forgot about this. And the politicians are, like, putting oil to the fire. They know that this is something that can win the election for them.

POGGIOLI: In fact, by late evening, right-wing politicians across Europe were cheering the results in Austria's presidential election Sunday. The right-wing, anti-immigrant freedom party swept in the first round with some 36 percent of votes cast. The parties best showing since its creation after World War II.

INSKEEP: We're listening to NPR's Sylvia Poggioli. She is at the Brenner Pass, the border between Italy and Austria. And, Sylvia, you mentioned the malls and so forth in that area on that border that may have tighter controls. What are the economic repercussions of this?

POGGIOLI: Well, they could be huge. This province, South Tyrol, hosts around 6 million tourists a year. The great majority are Germans. The local hotel and restaurant industry fears delays at the new checkpoint will keep them away. And along with 10 million cars, 2 million trucks pass through the Brenner Pass every year. It's a major crossways for Italian exports to Germany. The Italian Agricultural Union said reintroduction of border controls would threaten the annual movement of more than $11 billion worth of Italian foodstuffs alone. Italy is very worried.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Sylvia Poggioli. She's speaking with us from the Italy-Austria border. Sylvia, thanks.

POGGIOLI: Thank You, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sylvia Poggioli
Sylvia Poggioli is senior European correspondent for NPR's International Desk covering political, economic, and cultural news in Italy, the Vatican, Western Europe, and the Balkans. Poggioli's on-air reporting and analysis have encompassed the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, the turbulent civil war in the former Yugoslavia, and how immigration has transformed European societies.