Under increasing domestic pressure to come to a pan-European agreement on how to handle the ongoing migrant crisis, EU leaders met in Brussels Sunday for a series of emergency talks.
The hope was that these discussions would smooth the way for more conclusive negotiations at a larger EU summit at the end of the week.
Leaders discussed such issues as the formation of migrant processing centres in Africa and closer cooperation with non-EU countries like Turkey and Libya.
However, it’s apparent that little progress was made on meeting the main challenges posed by the ongoing crisis along the EU’s southern frontiers.
Spain’s Prime Minister, Pedro Sanchez, summed up the tone of the talks by saying that they were “frank and open” but that they failed to materialise in “any concrete consequences and conclusions”.
Looking at the divisive geopolitical situation, there is not much reason to feel optimistic about the formal summit today.
Europe is broadly divided in regard to the migrant crisis into three camps. In one camp are countries like Italy and Greece whose geographical locations mean they face the brunt of the influx of migrants from Africa and refugees from Syria and elsewhere.
Paired with their struggling economies, it’s not surprising that they are calling for wider European cooperation to mitigate the effects of the migrant crisis.
In a second camp are Europe’s leaders, like France and Germany, who recognise a need to reappraise EU handling of the situation, but who are also facing mounting popular opposition against immigration as well as a growth in the nationalist right-wing.
Finally, there are those countries, concentrated in Eastern Europe, who have elected into power staunchly anti-refugee, nationalist parties that are increasingly refusing to cooperate within the EU.
Italy and the incendiary rhetoric of its controversial, nationalist Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, is posing arguably the greatest immediate challenge to regional cooperation in the handling of the migrant crisis.
Salvini’s indelicate diplomacy has already managed to alienate the French President Emmanuel Macron, whose more liberal and humanitarian stance on the migrant crisis differs drastically from his own.
After Macron criticised the way Italy had refused to accept 630 migrants on the Aquarius rescue ship, Salvini dismissed the French leader’s position as “arrogant” and “hypocritical”.
The souring of relations between the two countries is clear from how Macron will not stop to see the Italian prime minister when he visits Pope Francis on Tuesday at the Vatican.
Meanwhile, the rise of the right-wing Five Star Movement in Italy has led to growing pressure to completely transform EU policy regarding migration.
At the Sunday meeting, Italy’s Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, called for a 10-point plan that would alleviate pressure on Italy and force other EU members to accept greater responsibility.
The most controversial point would see an end to the “Dublin Regulation” that currently means that refugees must register for asylum in the first “safe” country they reach.
Meanwhile, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, regardless of her own personal convictions on the responsibilities of the EU, and especially Germany, in dealing with the crisis, is facing mounting pressure from within her own government coalition to address the situation.
Following growing popular opposition to immigration, Horst Seehofer, Germany’s interior minister and also leader of the Bavarian Christian Social Party (CSU), presented Merkel with an ultimatum. If a multilateral agreement isn’t reached by the end of the month he is threatening to return any refugees that have already been registered for asylum in another country.
However, Armin Laschet, state premier for Merkel’s party in North Rhine Westphalia and a staunch ally of the chancellor, was quick to point out the ironic result that this threat would have, saying “if we as Germany go alone now, then Italy might withdraw from the Dublin agreement… and we end up with more refugees than before.”
The governments of the so-called “Visegrad Four”, comprising Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary, have already made their position on accepting more migrants and refugees abundantly clear.
Their leaders refused to attend Sunday’s impromptu mini-summit, with Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban saying, “we don’t belong to this migrant-loving group of friends.”
The Visegrad Four along with Austria were the first in 2016 to stop abiding to the Schengen zone principle, bringing the entire idea — a central tenant of the European project — into jeopardy. Although, they face pressure from the EU in the form of large cuts in the organisation’s spending in the region, their governments are refusing to compromise their position.
In the wake of the recent scandal with child separations at US detention centres, Donald Trump has been quick to weigh in on the troubling situation in Europe.
In a tweet, he criticised Merkel and other European leaders on the way they had allowed uncontrolled immigration “to violently change their culture” and vowed that he wouldn’t let the same thing happen in the US.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 June 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: EU seeks migrant crisis solution