NEWS
22/06/2018 11:36 BST | Updated 22/06/2018 11:43 BST

How The Migration Crisis Has Brought Europe To The Brink... Again

Ahead of a mini-summit on migration in Brussels on Sunday, officials have said disagreement in Europe over migrants from the Middle East and Africa is now even a bigger threat to EU cohesion than the 2010-13 debt crisis.

Simona Granati - Corbis via Getty Images
Protests in Rome this week against the government's closed door policy on the reception of migrants.

Italy’s new anti-establishment government was barely nine-days-old when it brought Europe to a dramatic turning point on immigration. 

While the eyes of Britain were again on a series of crunch Brexit votes, the rest of Europe was last week gripped by a deadlock in the Mediterranean involving the fate of 629 migrants from North Africa.

In the heat of a late Spring day, the “safest” time of year for boats loaded with migrants make the voyage from North Africa, Italy’s Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, who also leads the far-right Lega party, turned away the Aquarius rescue boat ― leaving those on board, including 123 unaccompanied minors and seven pregnant women, in limbo until Spain agreed to accept the vessel.

What’s followed has been a series of hastily organised bilateral meetings between Europe’s political heavyweights, with the aim of finding a solution ahead of a mini-summit of 10 EU leaders on migration in Brussels on Sunday.

EU states have been at loggerheads over migration since arrivals spiked in 2015, when more than 1 million migrants reached its shores across the Mediterranean. There have already been 41,000 sea arrivals so far this year, data shows. 

Along with Italy, EU states to the east are refusing to take migrants in. Hungary’s nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban on Thursday hosted a meeting of the “Visegrad 4” former Communist countries, with the leaders of Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. The four confirmed they would boycott the Sunday talks.

HuffPost editors and reporters in Spain, Germany, Italy and France have come together to explain the political situation in each country and reveal how Europe has never been more divided on immigration.

Italy’s hardline gaining traction in the polls

ANDREAS SOLARO via Getty Images
Italy's Interior Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini speaks on an talian talk show as picture of migrants is displayed in the background.

ROME — The number of migrants coming to Italy under the Dublin Treaty, which mandates that asylum seekers be processed in the country of their arrival, has ultimately proved too great for Rome. Italy has taken in some 650,000 boat migrants over the past five years, stoking anti-immigration sentiment in Italy and fueling the rise of the far-right Lega party, which forged a coalition government this month.

Even the immigration policies under the previous Renzi and Gentiloni governments stood out in Europe. Former Interior Minister Marco Minniti - who has been praised by Matteo Salvini himself - had tried to adopt a hard line on boat landings, by creating an agreement with Libya to block departures using holding centres on the North African coast.

But his successor has chosen to go further. Salvini’s decision to block the Aquarius is a hostile act against NGOs and his rejection of two other ships is proof of this. But in addition to making the landing of NGO boats in Italy practically impossible, the new Italian position - proposed by Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte at the Paris summit with Macron last week - aims to seal external borders through the creation of so-called ‘hotspots’, or reception centres, in the countries of origin.

Salvini, who plans to travel to Libya to “close the route” from Africa has also announced that he will ask the Italian Coast Guard to stay closer to home shores. “In the Mediterranean there are many countries that can intervene, North Africa, France, Spain, France, Portugal: we can not afford to bring half of Africa to Italy,” Salvini said. Politically, the hard line is gaining traction among voters. According to a survey published by la Repubblica, the decision not to authorise the landing of the Aquarius was supported by 58% of the voters.

Stefano Baldolini, HuffPost Italy

Merkel fighting for her job... and legacy 

Hannibal Hanschke / Reuters
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and German Interior minister Horst Seehofer are at odds over the Germany's immigration policies.

BERLIN - On Monday a cabinet crisis in Germany wasn’t averted, just postponed. Angela Merkel and her CDU party continue to be pressured by Interior Minister Horst Seehofer from the government’s sister CSU party to change the policy towards refugees at the border. Seehofer wants to reject all migrants and refugees that don’t have documents or that were previously registered in different EU countries. As EU-law professor Jürgen Bast told HuffPost Germany, this would basically mean the border closing and a 180 degree shift in Merkel’s immigration policy.

The chancellor has been trying to find a multilateral European solution for the refugee issue in time for the next EU-summit. Hence, she asked other EU states to hold extra talks this Sunday and agree to do more on migration in the hope that would be enough to convince Seehofer not to go it alone. Merkel also added that even if she fails to negotiate agreements at the beginning of July, this won’t mean that Seehofer’s policy – referred to by the press and Seehofer himself as his “masterplan” – will be enacted. Instead, there will be more negotiations between CDU and CSU.

Polls show that CDU and CSU are losing trust of the people. They are now at just 30% support, their worst numbers in recent times. Only in Bavaria, the home state of CSU, people seem to appreciate the party putting pressure on Merkel, another poll suggests. Merkel now battles to not only save her EU-focussed policy but also her legacy: a liberal, open-minded and non protectionist Germany.

Lennart Pfahler, HuffPost Germany

Macron’s balancing act wins few friends

FRANCOIS MORI via Getty Images
French President Emmanuel Macron and Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte shake hands after a meeting in Paris last week which following a bitter diplomatic spat over the Italian government's refusal to give the Aquarius permission to dock.

PARIS — Even if he had a progressive and open position during the presidential campaign (one of is main themes was “benevolence”), Emmanuel Macron passed a law in early spring on asylum and immigration that some considered to the most repressive in the history of the 5th republic; 52% of the French people disapproved of it. More broadly in France, the question of immigration reveals a paradox. According to a survey published in February, 65% of French people believe that “France has the duty to welcome persecuted refugees in their country”. At the same time, 63% say that there are “today too many immigrants in France”.

Macron was elected on a centrist movement by disappointed voters from the left and the right. He always said he was left and right. Now the common opinion is he’s “right and right”. And Macron’s left wing supporters, including some parliamentarians, saw Malta and Italy’s refusal to accept the Aquarius NGO boat as an opportunity to show that the tradition of a ‘welcoming France’ had not disappeared. But by not offering to host the boat in Corsica (a Mediterranean island much closer than Spain and off which the ship passed) he missed an opportunity; 56% of French people think however that it did well not to welcome it. In parallel, the President unleashed a diplomatic mini-crisis with Italy accusing its leaders of “cynicism and irresponsibility”.

Macron now promises to bring in the coming weeks an “ambitious proposal” for reforming European migration policy. In his address to the European Parliament in April, he called for “unblocking the debate on the Berlin settlement and relocations”. In response, he had proposed the creation of a new European fund to finance local communities hosting refugees. France defends a strengthening of the Frontex agency to better monitor the external borders of the European Union. Macron is also ready for the French services to work better in the countries of departure, which is a small step forward for those, like the Italians, who are demanding sorting centers in the countries of departure.

Paul Ackermann and Alexandre Boudet, HuffPost France

Spain’s new government changes the game

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Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez (right) meets European Council President, Donald Tusk in Madrid on Tuesday.

MADRID — He had only been in office for five days as Prime Minister when, with a single tweet, Pedro Sánchez took a radical turn from the entire policy of the previous conservative government on refugees by announcing that Spain would accept the Aquarius. Under Mariano Rajoy, Spain had been criticised for not complying with previously agreed migrant reception quotas. In 2015, Spain said it would relocate 17,337 people. Two years later, it had only welcomed 2,792, less than a fifth of what was promised.

Pollsters say Spaniards were uncomfortable with Rajoy’s approach, and in a radical change on immigration policy, Sánchez’s government signalled it was willing to welcome migrants, and address the issue not just as a problem of Spain, but for the entire European Union. “It’s a wake-up call in Europe,” government spokeswoman Isabel Celaá warned.

Far fewer migrants have arrived in Spain, but the number is rising fast, with more than 1,000 rescued by Spain’s coast guard on Friday and Saturday. Aware of this, the PSOE (Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party), the party that supports the Sánchez’s government, wants an urgent European-wide solution.

Carolina Abellan, HuffPost Spain

With files form Reuters