Reuters International

A sign reading "Republic of Austria - border control" is seen at Brenner on the Italian-Austrian border, Italy, April 12, 2016. REUTERS/Dominic Ebenbichler

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ROME (Reuters) - Austria's plan to build a fence at its border with Italy to keep out migrants is a dangerous project that risks raising the ghosts of Europe's past, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi said on Wednesday.

Italy and Austria are members of the European Union's Schengen open-border zone but free movement has been jeopardised by the reimposition of controls at some major crossings by countries affected by an influx of migrants fleeing armed conflict and deprivation in the Middle East and Africa.

Austria has said it will erect the fence to "channel" people at the busy Brenner Pass border crossing in the Alps, drawing an angry reaction from Rome.

"It is a dangerous operation," Renzi told the lower house of parliament. "If you play on fear, you risk giving strength to those who know best how to wake the ghosts and spectres of the past."

He did not specify what he meant by "the past". The Schengen zone was created to help nurture European integration and prosperity after a 20th century marked by nationalism that led to two world wars which devastated the continent.

Schengen has been disrupted over the past year as Europe has struggled with the arrival of more than one million people looking for a better life.

Barbs have been traded between Austrian officials who say Italy should stop migrants heading ultimately for the wealthy north and west of the EU and Italians who say that all EU nations should cooperate in tackling the crisis.

Austrian Interior Minister Wolfgang Sobotka said in Rome last month that as many as a million migrants were poised to cross the Mediterranean from Libya this year. Italy says the figure is much lower though calm summer seas may well bring a surge.

Renzi said on Wednesday that proposals Italy sent to the European Commission for dealing with the migrant crisis had been well received, and Austria's plans were "little more than a provocation".

"The Brenner Pass is a symbol of the last 100 years. So many of our countrymen died there and it has become a symbol of friendship and dialogue," Renzi said.

(Reporting by Isla Binnie; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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