By Oliver Schmidtke, Director of Centre for Global Studies at the University of Victoria
Going into the Brussels summit, the German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned that the fate of the European Union would ‘hang in the balance’. For too long, the EU has not been able to find a common approach to governing migration and asylum in terms of a pan-European burden-sharing approach. Instead, those countries that have received most of the refugees fleeing across the Mediterranean Sea (in particular Greece and Italy) have felt abandoned and deprived of any solidarity among member states. As a result, nationalist populists gained political ground demanding the closure of national borders for irregular refugees.
In this latter respect, the summit is an indication of the degree to which political parties with an aggressive anti-immigrant platform have gained considerable ground across Europe. So far in 2018, just over 40,000 irregular refugees have made the treacherous trip across the Mediterranean Sea (this constitutes a 95% drop compared to 2015 levels). This policy challenge does not seem unsurmountable. Still, the migration issue has taken over the summit marginalizing other urgent issues such as trade, unemployment, social inequality or the environment.
The reason for the urgency with which the EU summit addressed the migration question is clearly rooted in domestic politics. Chancellor Merkel has had to fight for the survival of Germany’s governing Grand Coalition after her Bavarian sister party, the staunchly conservative CSU, issued an ultimatum requesting to turn back asylum seekers at Germany’s borders. Similarly, the right-wing Lega as part of a new governing coalition in Italy uncompromisingly demanded the closure of the country’s borders to irregular migrants and their relocation to other member states. Blaming the EU for its failure plays into the hand of those who want to see European integration collapse and the nation-state reinstated as the only legitimate political community. Indeed, Italy’s new Minister of the Interior said in an interview before the summit: “Within a year, we will see if a united Europe still exists.”
By not being able to find a solution to governing (irregular) migration at the European level has emboldened nationalist and nativist forces to spread their ideology of fear and exclusion. Now the European Union has realized how explosive and potential damaging this political development can be to the very project of European integration. It is doubtful if the vaguely worded Brussel’s compromise will be effective in addressing the rise of the populist right.
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