The issue of migration and its monstrous twin, nationalism, are the overriding threats to the future of democracy in the EU. Europe faces a perfect storm from rising immigration and political extremism bubbling above and below the democratic surface.
European leaders appear bereft of ideas for dealing with it. Germany’s migration experiment in 2015 can be seen now as potentially ushering in the creeping disunity of the EU.
What German Chancellor Angela Merkel attempted to do unleashed forces that Brussels still does not understand and cannot control.
The recent EU summit devoted itself almost entirely to the vexed issue of migration, reflecting Italy’s seismic election result that gave sweeping political momentum to those parties of the Left and Right that made an explicit link between migrants and crime and revelled in nationalistic pride. Italy’s message was a howl of anger against a political system seen to have failed.
The fury of nationalism in countries throughout Europe has erupted during the migration crisis. The fear of being overwhelmed by foreign newcomers propels the nationalist agenda across Europe. When people feel there is little control over who comes into their country, resentment builds. Antipathy to even legal immigration increases.
Against this background, did last week’s EU summit resolve the issue? Is there a plan for dealing with waves of irregular migrants coming via the central and eastern Mediterranean?
The short answer to both questions is no. EU leaders differ sharply over how a new deal on curbing migration by creating secure “controlled reception centres” around Europe would work in practice. As before the summit, EU leaders are split. The latest spat between Italy’s Matteo Salvini and Malta shows that international goodwill is at an all-time low ebb.
French President Emmanuel Macron said his country would not set up controlled centres as it was not the EU country where migrants landed first. Italy’s Prime Minister, Giuseppe Conte, however, says centres could be anywhere within the EU. Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said controlled centres would be on a voluntary basis, implying Malta would not be establishing any.
European Council president Donald Tusk has warned of difficulties to implement the deal. And Ms Merkel, sensing that the summit had offered her a (probably temporary) political lifeline, spoke of a “significant step forward” but recognised that more must be done to resolve disagreements. Mr Tusk has stressed that NGO rescue vessels must respect the laws by not obstructing the Libyan coastguard. He highlighted the importance of “disembarkation platforms” outside Europe, even though no North African country has agreed to establish any. A transfer of €500 million to the EU Trust for Africa may help oil the wheels.
European disunity runs deep.
Strong borders are vital in avoiding swings to the extremes of politics, as has been the case in Germany, Italy, Austria, the Netherlands, Sweden, Greece, Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and elsewhere too.
Europe must deal urgently with the issue of migration. But last week’s fractious summit does not engender confidence that its leaders have the will to tackle it. European Commission bureaucrats will shortly be starting their summer holidays with probably the most threatening crisis to confront the EU in the last 60 years unresolved.
This is a Times of Malta print editorial
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