epa04966105 Refugees from Syria walk past a sign that reads 'Germany' and features an image of the German national flag near the Austrian-German border in Julbach, Austria, 06 October 2015. Austria has become the main transit country for migrants travelling from the Balkans to Germany while Italy had faced the brunt of refugee arrivals via the Mediterranean Sea. EPA/ARMIN WEIGEL
Refugees near the Austria-Germany border at Julbach, Austria © EPA

Matteo Renzi, the Italian prime minister, issued a stinging rebuke of Austria’s far-right Freedom party as he joined forces with Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, to criticise Vienna’s policy of building fences to keep out refugees.

At a press conference in Rome that showed Mr Renzi and Ms Merkel to be on warmer terms than they have been in recent months, the two leaders appeared to converge on criticism of Austria’s decision to erect a fence at its southern borders, including the Alpine Brenner Pass.

“We expressed our clear disagreement and shock at certain positions taken by our Austrian friends at the Brenner. They are mistaken and anachronistic positions. They defy logic and history and are not justified by any emergency,” Mr Renzi said.

Ms Merkel added: “We need to resolve problems differently than by shutting down borders. We cannot shut down borders. We cannot abandon each other,” she said.

Migration was the main focus of the meeting between the Italian and German government leaders, who have had a complicated and testy relationship over the past two years, especially on economic, budget and banking policy.

Their concerns about the Austrian policy come ahead of a run-off presidential election in the Alpine nation that could deliver victory to the far-right Freedom party, whose candidate won the first round on an explicitly anti-migrant platform.

Mr Renzi was particularly incensed at comments made by Heinz-Christian Strache, chairman of the Freedom party, in an interview with La Repubblica, the Italian daily, in which he likened the Italian prime minister to a “state trafficker” for his policy of saving migrants in the Mediterranean Sea.

“Anyone who has seen the images of dead children in the holds of ships in the Mediterranean . . . that to be called ‘traffickers’ is a shameful phrase that should make all the good people in Austria reflect,” Mr Renzi said.

Mr Renzi has been pushing for the EU to strike deals with African countries to curb migration flows in exchange for development aid, akin to the contentious agreement struck in March between Brussels and Turkey.

Ms Merkel backed the idea, but Italy and Germany still disagree on how to finance such a plan. Italy has proposed joint EU bonds, but Berlin has opposed that idea and the pair remain at loggerheads over a funding mechanism.

Nevertheless, Ms Merkel suggested that it was essential to limit flows along the EU’s external borders or a “return to nationalism” across the continent could be triggered. “The future of Europe is at stake,” she said.

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