VIENNA, Feb 27 (Reuters) - Far-right parties in countries bordering Italy have seized on Europe’s biggest coronavirus outbreak to call for checks at the Italian frontier, despite medical experts saying that would do little to stop the disease spreading.
Italian authorities said on Thursday three more people had died, bringing the toll there to 17, with 650 cases confirmed. As public fears have grown with the number of cases in their countries, so too has the outcry from anti-immigration parties in France, Italy and Switzerland.
“In the space of 24 hours, at least 10 countries that were coronavirus-free have registered a case, and one that is the result of someone travelling from Italy. This isn’t about being hostile toward Italians, it’s just a fact,” French far-right leader Marine Le Pen told reporters on Thursday after meeting Prime Minister Edouard Philippe.
“I am asking for control of our borders. It feels like I am asking for the moon whereas in fact running checks at your borders should be the first act of common sense,” she told BFM TV on Monday.
Far-right parties like Le Pen’s National Rally and Austria’s Freedom Party frequently associate immigrants with illness and crime while railing against European institutions like the Schengen open-border area their countries are part of.
“Cross-border traffic should be reduced to a minimum. Everything must be done to stop the disease spreading further in Austria,” Freedom Party deputy leader Herbert Kickl said on Tuesday, when Austria’s first cases were detected — an Italian couple who recently arrived from Lombardy.
Austria, wedged between Germany and Italy, is a vital corridor between those two countries. More than half the freight that crosses the Alps goes through it.
“How long have you known that the coronavirus was on the march towards Europe and therefore also Austria?” Kickl asked the government in parliament on Thursday, criticising its response to the outbreak and using language reminiscent of Europe’s migration crisis.
After a meeting in Rome on Tuesday with his counterparts from Italy and neighbouring countries, Austrian Health Minister Rudolf Anschober of the Greens dismissed such calls.
“We asked the health experts, the virology experts, of the European Union ... of the World Health Organization and the experts of the countries present, and their unanimous answer was ‘That makes no sense, doesn’t help us’,” he told broadcaster ORF.
The far-right Swiss People’s Party also called for “strict border control immediately”.
“Those entering the country must be given rapid tests and sick people should be denied entry,” it said in a statement on Monday. (Reporting by Francois Murphy Additional reporting by Richard Lough in Paris and Michael Shields in Geneva Editing by Catherine Evans)