The wandering in the Mediterranean, for several days, of the humanitarian ship Aquarius, transporting more than 600 migrants, has cast harsh light on the fierce disagreements between member states of the European Union (EU) regarding the migration policy that the bloc should follow.
The event has illustrated how the Old Continent has failed for almost three years to meet the migratory challenge, according to some analysts. Neither Malta nor Italy gave the Aquarius the right to dock even though it is habitually granted in such cases. It was Madrid which, in a humanitarian gesture, by giving the ship authorization to sail toward the port of Valencia, allowing for a veritable human tragedy to be avoided. But the boat has still not arrived due to unfavorable weather conditions. The tough comments from French President Emmanuel Macron toward Rome this week have provoked a serious deterioration of relations between France and Italy, two countries nevertheless traditionally allies. The Friday visit to Paris by the Prime Minister Guiseppe Conte for a working lunch and press conference, went a small way toward releasing tensions. The two heads of government announced they had found mutual understanding again and shared points of view on migration policy reform for the EU. They notably proposed to revise the notion of “State of first arrival,” the creation of European centers in departure countries for migrants who wished to come to Europe, and the reinforcement of means at the disposal of Frontex, the European border agency.
The French president conceded that migration policy was “a test for Europe” and lamented that “Europe lacks efficiency and solidarity.” Guissepe Conte said it was necessary to “reinforce the concept of a European frontier.” “No one in Europe can think to wash his hands of migration questions,” the Italian prime minister said. The tensions between Rome and Paris pay witness to the disagreements always growing between European countries. These could provoke a veritable crisis in the EU which, since the migratory spike in 2015, has not arrived at an agreement for a shared policy on the matter. It is “a decisive test” for the future of the EU, said German Chancellor Angela Merkel. “A mortal danger for the Union,” said this week President of the European Parliament Antonio Tajani.
A dividing line is growing always stronger and more visible between two camps. On one side, Eastern European countries, like Hungary and Poland, more or less actively supported by Slovakia and the Czech Republic, have taken a hard line for years, refusing the resettlement of migrants by a quota system for member states. They suggest a reinforcement of turning away illegal migrants at the borders, at the risk of halting freedom of movement in Europe, a key principle for the EU. Italy and Greece, which carry the heaviest burden from the migrant crisis, appeal for the application of the solidarity principle between member states, and the redistribution of refugees and asylum seekers throughout the whole of the European Union. Up until now, they have benefited from the support of the German chancellor whose country accepted almost a million migrants and has fought for a coordinated response, as well as a revision of the Dublin rules, with French backing.
The arrival in power of coalitions of conservatives, nationalists and populists in Austria and Italy have added to the crisis. With the support of the Christian Socialists (CSU) in the coalition running Germany — led by Horst Seehofer who is also Minister of the Interior — and that of Italian new government’s Minister of the Interior Matteo Salvini, the objective has been set to create an “axis of volunteers” to attack what they qualify as clandestine immigration. They demand in particular that their countries be able to turn away at the borders asylum seekers who are already registered in another EU country. This axis considers itself reinforced by the agreement of Denmark and the Netherlands which support the idea of creating camps for asylum seekers in third countries. Such policies would be out of compliance with the European Convention on Human Rights and the rules on asylum procedures.
The fracture line at the heart of Europe grows deeper and shifts, threatening even to provoke a serious crisis within the fragile coalition established painfully in Germany, rendering all of Europe fragile and risking to worsen. The initiator of the “Strong axis of volunteers,” the Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, has effectively put the battle against illegal immigration at the center of his politics, sweeping him to power at the end 2017 at the head of a coalition with the extreme right. Austria, in addition, will take over the alternating presidency of the European Council on July 1. Merkel, for her part, risks being marginalized in her country for being seen as too generous on migration questions. France will have difficulty weighing in alone and arriving at a migration policy agreement. And yet, behind this political trench war, all of Europe is under threat. The EU struggles to confront in a coherent manner, with solidarity, the migration movements which will amplify. This context raises fears for the 2019 European elections a reinforcement of the populist extreme right within the European Parliament. The coming weeks will prove crucial for the future and cohesion of the EU.
File photo of MS Aquarius from google images