Europe needs to solve immigration crisis to stay united

Europe needs to solve immigration crisis to stay united

Europe seems to be coming unstuck at the seams on the topic of immigration. It took Germany six months to form a government and it may well be at risk already: The Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, has given her an ultimatum to find a pan-EU solution to the refugee crisis. Her deadline is this weekend, which might well mean the end of Merkel’s new government. 

German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, as well as Bavaria’s Prime Minister Markus Soeder (both CSU), want to reject immigrants at the border. This would run counter to coalition policy and a manifesto the CSU signed up to. They demand that the EU must come up with a stronger reinforcement of its external borders and a reasonable proposal for the proportional distribution of immigrants by Sunday. 

Last week, Soeder even held talks with Austria’s right-wing populist Chancellor Sebastian Kurz on how Austria and Bavaria could cooperate regarding immigration. It is quite unprecedented for a German state government to discuss federal issues with a neighboring nation. However, the two men are of one mind: That their countries need to be allowed to reject immigrants at their borders if Europe does not get its act together. 

The CSU went “rogue” because it is worried about losing its majority in the Bavarian parliament, under pressure from the far-right populist Alternative for Germany, during state parliamentary elections in September if it does not take a very aggressive stance on immigration.

Merkel threatened to sack Seehofer from her cabinet if he goes ahead with his threat to impose measures that run counter to official coalition policies. In that case, we may see the end of the CDU/CSU coalition, which has been strong for 70 years. It would also put an end to the government’s grand coalition. On Wednesday, Andrea Nahles, the parliamentary head of the Social Democratic Party, warned on German state TV that the dissolution of the government and new elections were a real possibility. The same evening, Seehofer struck a more conciliatory tone in a TV appearance of his own.

Many Italians feel overrun when the migrant boats arrive on the nation’s shores every summer. 

Cornelia Meyer

This debate is not just raging in Germany. Austria, Hungary and the Czech Republic are also on a mission to limit immigration. They vociferously demand the EU strengthens its external borders, as well as enhanced border policies and their strict enforcement. 

Meanwhile, Italy’s new government made headlines by refusing to let the Aquarius, a ship of rescued refugees, dock. It was sent on an odyssey lasting several days. After Malta had also refused to take in its 600-plus refugees, Spain eventually stepped in and let them disembark. Italy’s new Interior Minister Matteo Salvini is a strongman advocating stricter immigration rules. He is head of the right-wing League party and had campaigned on a platform promising to put a lid on immigration and put Italians first. Many Italians feel overrun when the migrant boats arrive on the nation’s shores every summer. 

Other EU nations have so far not stepped up to the plate and offered to take in these immigrants. According to the Dublin Principles, the EU country which is the first point of entry for an immigrant assumes responsibility, but Italy feels let down by its EU partners. It wants to revise the Dublin rule because it feels it is unfair for the country of first entry to assume all responsibility. Greece was in a similar position a few years back, until the EU reached agreement with Turkey to keep refugees inside its borders in return for a contribution of €6 billion ($6.9 billion) toward the cost of accommodating the migrants. To be fair, we should acknowledge that the numbers of migrants crossing the Mediterranean is smaller now than it has been over the last several years.

Last Sunday, more than a dozen EU heads of state met to discuss the problem, but they could not agree on a solution. They are due to make another attempt during their summit on Thursday. We should not hold our breath, because the problem is fiendishly complex and member governments are all over the place in how they want to handle the migration issue. For anybody familiar with the machinations of the EU, it is clear that, while it is in the interests of the organization to find a solution, anything of this magnitude cannot be agreed on substantively in such a short time.

The discussions in Brussels could be likened to a bazaar of ideas: Holding centers in North Africa have been mentioned, even one in Mali; there are proposals of safe zones in the Balkans and in other regions neighboring the EU; there is talk of getting the UN Refugee Agency, other multilateral agencies or NGOs involved. All of these suggestions are floating around and have so far not been tested against European and international human rights law. 

These discussions may be all well and good, but unless and until member countries agree on how to deal with the EU’s exterior border and, more importantly, reach a compromise on how to distribute immigrants amongst themselves equitably, this issue cannot be resolved. Thursday’s deliberations are a first step in what promises to be a long process.

If the dissonance continues, the right-wing populists will be on the rise — not just in Germany but also in Holland, Denmark, Sweden and France. Regardless of what one thinks of the various European heads of state, Europe needs to find a solution to stay united. These challenges make Brexit look like a sideshow. A failure to find a comprehensive solution to the immigration issue may have far more wide-reaching implications — they could even pose a threat to the very existence of the EU. In the end, a disunited Europe is in nobody’s interest. Therefore, we need to keep a close eye on what the EU’s leaders come up with this week and beyond.

  • Cornelia Meyer is a business consultant, macroeconomist and energy expert. Twitter: @MeyerResources 
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