The future of the passport-free Schengen area will be at stake on Thursday (5 July) when German interior minister Horst Seehofer meets the leaders of the Austrian government in Vienna.

This is at least the message in the Austrian capital, in response to Seehofer’s plan to send back asylum seekers to the country where they were registered in Europe, or, when this is not possible, to neighbouring Austria.

In reaction, the centre-right Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz warned that his government would then have to step up controls on its own borders with Italy and Slovenia in order to prevent migrants from coming in and being blocked there.

Otherwise, he said, Austria would become “a reception centre in the middle of Europe.”

If Austria were to close its border with Italy, in particular at the Brenner Pass, this could have “a domino effect”, Austrian transport minister Norbert Hofer warned on Wednesday.

Hofer, who was the candidate of the far-right FPO party at the presidential election in 2016, told a group of Brussels journalists in Vienna that a closure of the Brenner Pass would “no doubt be a disaster”.

If borders were to be closed in Italy and other countries, it would ultimately put the Schengen area at risk.

An Austrian source admitted that closing the Brenner Pass, one of the main transit points between north and south Europe would have a big symbolic impact.

“We need support of the entire EU, so internal borders need not being put up again,” Hofe insisted.

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Waiting for Berlin

“What everyone does now will depend on Germany,” an Austrian source insisted, suggesting that Seehofer and chancellor Angela Merkel would bear a big responsibility if they went ahead with their plan.

Seehofer will meet Kurz, as well as the vice-chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache and interior minister Herbert Kickl, both from the FPO.

Ahead of Seehofer’s visit, the Austrian government insisted that it was first and foremost waiting for explanations about the German government’s intentions.

“We’re waiting for details,” foreign minister Karin Kneissl told journalists.

She stressed that “neither [her] nor any other member of the government is in a position to say what this exactly means.”

The three-point agreement reached on Monday between Merkel’s CDU party and its right-wing Bavarian ally, Seehofer’s CSU, says that asylum seekers could be rejected at the German-Austrian border “on the basis of an agreement” with Austria.

But officials in Vienna pointed out that there was no such agreement yet, and that it would have to be negotiated with Berlin.

Last week, at the EU summit in Berlin, Merkel gathered promises from about 12 countries to have bilateral agreements on taking back asylum seekers from Germany. The effort was part of the European solution she had pledged to find to avoid Seehofer’s plan.

But the agreements, which still have to be formalised, were deemed insufficient by Seehofer, who pushed for the three-point plan agreed on Monday.

The deal, obtained with a threat to resign and put the government coalition at risk, did not involve Germany’s other coalition partner, the centre-left SPD.

The SPD is critical of another point of the deal, under which Germany would set up transit centres for asylum seekers waiting to be rejected. It has not yet said whether it would endorse the CDU-CSU deal.

In Vienna, sources noted that with this uncertainty in Berlin, the Austrian government did not know yet if the plan was only a plan by two coalition partners or if it should be considered as the official German government policy.

Two weeks ago, after meeting Seehofer in Berlin, Kurz hailed an “axis of the willing” in the fight against illegal migration, with Seehofer’s CSU and Italy’s far-right League party of Italian interior minister Matteo Salvini.

Now, after Austria took over the EU presidency on 1 July and was designated by Seehofer as a country to send back migrants, Kurz must find a balance between protecting Schengen, one of the EU’s main achievements, and protecting his country’s interest against the two other members of the “axis of willing”.

“We will ensure that Europe is naturally without [internal] borders,” he promised on Wednesday.

After last week’s agreement between EU leaders to strengthen external borders and set up migrants centres outside the bloc, the Austrian EU presidency insists that a solution on asylum and internal borders depends more than ever on sticking to this balance between the internal and external dimension of migration policy.

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