Only 43,767 refugees arrived in Europe by sea so far in 2018. Nonetheless, the migration crisis is threatening the European Union’s unity, core values and its very existence. It is once again exposing the rifts plaguing the European project, as member states fight over how to handle the issue.
Arrivals have dipped by 96 per cent since the peak of Europe’s migration crisis in 2015, according to the European Council’s summit conclusions note in Brussels last week.
The sharp downturn in migration numbers came as a result of new border fences in the Balkans, EU agreement with Turkey in March 2016 to reduce the influx of refugees by aiding Turkey to control its borders, and the bilateral arrangement between Italy and Libya to curb illegal migration by strengthening EU naval cooperation with the Libyan coastguard.
Nonetheless, and despite the recent decline in numbers, the debate in Europe about migration was never more toxic or divisive. Right-wing populism is the main beneficiary, making a resurgence in Europe as recent Italian, German, Dutch, Austrian and Swedish elections show. Encouraged by the poor performance of Europe’s mainstream parties, and a sceptical public mood, right-wing parties are resetting the agenda, aiming to create a populist Europe. It is a frightening prospect.
Matteo Salvini, Italy’s interior minister and the leader of the right-wing Northern League, called last week for a “European anti-migrant alliance”, promising to unite nationalists and Euro-sceptics by expanding the League’s Italian success into a new EU-wide nationalist bloc for the 2019 European Parliament elections.
At a large outdoor rally of party members and supporters in the northern Italian town of Pontida, Salvini said that the League’s ideas represent the “last hope for this Europe to stay alive”. “I am thinking about a League of the Leagues of Europe, bringing together all the free and sovereign movements that want to defend their people and their borders,” Salvini said, adding that League supporters needed to play the role of “liberating” Europeans.
In his efforts to build a network of right-wing nationalist parties around Europe, Salvini has cited the French far-right leader Marine Le Pen, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, among others. He told journalists that the League had cemented its place as the “most populist party” in Europe.
His posturing as the new leader of the European right-wing came days after Salvini announced that Italian ports would be closed “all summer” to NGO ships that rescue migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea from Africa to Europe.
“The NGOs will only see Italy on a postcard,” he said proudly. His strong words reflect the predicament of Europe today. Right-wing parties are setting the agenda, forcing Europe’s mainstream political parties to shift grounds towards right-wing policies and anti-immigration stance.
It is not difficult to see how the rise of right-wing parties is changing Europe. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is fighting on a daily basis to rescue her fragile coalition government because of internal differences on the issue of migration, warned last Thursday that the future of the European Union hinged on whether it could find answers to the “vital questions” posed by migration.
Addressing the Bundestag, the German chancellor said that the migration crisis could “decide the EU’s fate” and that European leaders should find a solution to asylum challenges “by allowing ourselves to be guided by values and rooting for multilateralism rather than unilateralism”. Failing to agree, Merkel warned, the EU leaders risk creating a situation where “no one believes in the value system that has made us so strong”.
The need for comprehensive and deliverable EU migration policy was never greater. However, the new deal on migrants that was delivered during the Brussels summit last week was a mixed bag of good words, confusing intentions, undeliverable promises and selfish nationalist stances.
According to the deal, Greece and Spain will take back migrants stopped at the Bavarian-Austrian border who were proven to have entered their countries first. That was an attempt to ease the pressure on Merkel’s government.
The EU leaders pledged to set up “voluntarily controlled centres” in EU countries, that would screen newly-arrived migrants.
They also proposed setting up safe new migrant screening centres in North African countries such as Algeria, Libya, Morocco, Niger and Tunisia, or what is called “disembarkation platforms”, to control the influx of migration and break the people-smuggling gangs by creating safe havens for immigrants waiting for their refuge requests to be processed.
However, these ideas were deemed to be very ambitious and vague as EU leaders did not specify how the new migrant screening centres would work, or how much they would cost. In addition to that, none of these countries have formally agreed, while a couple ruled themselves out.
Also, much uncertainty remains regarding sending failed asylum seekers back to their countries of origin, as the migrant “return” rate in Europe is still below 40 per cent.
The deal was so divisive that after only a few hours, Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland, who refused to take any refuges, implied that they do not want to take migrants from Germany or see “voluntary” migrant screening centres on their territories.
The word “voluntary” reflects the difficulty of getting 28 nations to agree.
It is a sad state of affairs that the EU cannot reconcile its values with its internal politics. And with the surge of the nationalist and right-wing sentiments, the future of the EU project seems more uncertain than ever.
“The fragility of the EU is increasing,” warns EU Commission Chief Jean-Claude Juncker. “The cracks are growing in size.”
The German chancellor conceded that, “We still have a lot of work to do to bridge the different views.”
The problem with Europe is not really migration, but the existential threat it faces from US President Donald Trump’s protectionist policies and the rise of populist right-wing parties in Europe.
The Brussels agreement was a very clear attempt to offload Europe’s responsibilities onto poorer countries outside the EU. However, building migration centres will not solve anything.
Cooperation with African countries and providing them with aid to tackle deep-rooted poverty that forces people to risk everything might be the way to end the migration crisis and to save the EU and its core values.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 5 July 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under headline: Europe at a crossroads