VIENNA Austria will introduce tougher border controls at the Brenner Pass crossing with Italy from June 1 at the latest as part of a tough response to Europe's migration crisis, Defence Minister Hans Peter Doskozil said on Tuesday.
With border restrictions now imposed along the Balkan route, Austria expects migrant arrivals to Italy by sea to nearly double this year to 300,000. Both countries have said they would keep traffic across the border "fluid" at busy times.
Italy's coastguard said on Tuesday some 4,000 migrants had been rescued in the southern Mediterranean in the past two days.
The Brenner Pass, which links Austria and Italy, is the most important Alpine crossing for heavy goods traffic.
Asked if Vienna planned to build a fence at the border, Doskozil referred to a system "similar to the one in Spielfeld" at Austria's border with Slovenia, which consists of fences, lanes and tents.
The exact date for the introduction of stricter controls at the European North-South crossing depends on the number of migrants and the progress of construction work of the new border control centre, Doskozil said, adding such work had started.
The European Commission expressed concern over the move.
"If these plans were to materialise, then we would have to look at them very seriously. The Brenner Pass is essential for the freedom of movement within the European Union," Commission spokeswoman Natasha Bertaud told a briefing.
The EU executive was not informed of the plans and learnt about them from media reports, Bertaud added.
Italy's foreign and interior ministers sent a joint letter to European Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos urging the Commission to "verify with extreme urgency" whether the move would violate Europe's Schengen agreement on open borders.
Italy's European Affairs Minister Sandro Gozi said in a statement: "It is not by erecting improvised walls that we will resolve problems ... Vienna should reconsider this decision which runs counter both to the spirit and the letter of European rules (and) the friendship that links Italy and Austria."
Austria's parliament is due to vote on a draft law for tougher asylum rules in the coming weeks.
The highway across the Brenner Pass is the main thoroughfare through the Alps to get to Germany from Italy -- by way of Austria -- and Germany is Italy's top trading partner.
About two million trucks cross it annually. A rail base tunnel has also been under discussion for years.
For transportation companies, long lines to get over the Brenner Pass would cause higher costs and slower services, said Franco Santagata, a former executive at Deutsche Post AG's Italian unit and now a transport industry consultant in Italy.
"If the border controls mean that it will take more time to get from Milan to Munich and back, then the transport company is going to have to raise its prices," he said.
(Additional reporting by Crispian Balmer, Steve Scherer and Philip Pullella in Rome, Robin Emmott in Brussels, Writing by Shadia Nasralla, Editing by Gareth Jones)
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