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Europe's migration crisis: Could it finish the EU?

Thursday - 28/06/2018 08:17
Hardened Eurosceptics might love to think the EU's in trouble, but as leaders gather in Brussels for their summer summit on Thursday, dedicated Europhiles are also sounding the alarm.
AFP / The splits within the EU have been highlighted by Italy's refusal to accept migrants carried by NGO rescue boats in the Mediterranean
AFP / The splits within the EU have been highlighted by Italy's refusal to accept migrants carried by NGO rescue boats in the Mediterranean

"The fragility of the EU is increasing," warns EU Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker. "The cracks are growing in size."

It's been easy to get distracted this last couple of weeks by the new Italian government and its headline-grabbing rejection of NGO migrant rescue boats.

But Mr Juncker is right: EU fissures go deeper and are more widespread.

Migration pits southern Europe against the north.

Italy and Greece smoulder with resentment at having been left alone to deal with migrant arrivals. Meanwhile, northern countries blame the south for not patrolling their Mediterranean borders better and for having, at least in the past, enabled migrants to "slip away" northwards towards richer Germany, Austria and Sweden.

Read more from Katya: EU's Med migrant crisis: Just a mess or cynical politics?

Migration slashes the EU from east to west too.

Newer member states from Central and Eastern Europe never signed up to the post World War Two "all for one and one for all" vision.

When it comes to EU solidarity and burden-sharing, they are fervent non-believers. They determinedly turn their backs when Italy and Germany plead for migrant quotas.

High-stakes summer for Merkel

The number of migrants arriving illegally in Europe may be down, but so is voter tolerance of the problem.

The rise and rise across the EU of tough-on-migration politicians has emboldened hardliners such as Hungary's Victor Orban and Austria's Sebastian Kurz, who takes over the six-month rotating presidency of the EU this Sunday and will push migration as a top priority.

"Keep Them Out" is Austria's main aim and while Europe's (still) most influential leader, Angela Merkel, arrives in Brussels on Thursday pushing - and praying - for compromise on burden-sharing and prevention, the number of EU leaders pushing single-mindedly on the migrant deterrence button is growing.

Graphic showing the number of migrant arrivals by sea to Europe in 2018

Which brings me to the next layer of European splits provoked by migration: within national governments as well as between countries.

Germany is the most dramatic example.

Mrs Merkel has clearly been weakened at home by her previous open-door migrant policy.

Formerly viewed as politically untouchable, the German chancellor has now been given an ultimatum by her own interior minister.

"By the end of this Brussels summit, you need to come home with a workable pan-European solution to stop irregular migrants bleeding into Germany," Horst Seehofer has threatened her. "Or I will unilaterally slam Germany's borders shut."

The Austrian government told me this week it would then immediately follow suit, causing a border-closing domino effect across Europe - with a seismic impact on the EU's prize political and economic project: the open-border Schengen agreement.

What a blow for Brussels and nightmare for Europe's export-king Germany that would be.

Of course we're not there yet.

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