Migration issues take centre stage ahead of EU emergency summit

The migration issue is not just threatening to divide the EU but could potentially lead to the downfall of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government.
Sunday 24/06/2018
Leading the charge. Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, backdropped with a picture of migrants being rescued at sea, attends a talk show in Rome, on June 20.  (AP)
Leading the charge. Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, backdropped with a picture of migrants being rescued at sea, attends a talk show in Rome, on June 20. (AP)

LONDON - Migration has become a flashpoint issue in many European countries ahead of an EU summit, with hopes leaders can agree on a comprehensive policy to deal with the problem when many countries are threatening to act unilaterally.

European leaders agreed to attend an informal “mini-summit” on migration and asylum on June 24, ahead of the main summit June 28-29. Leaders from Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Austria and Bulgaria were expected to attend the crunch meeting.

Despite a sharp decrease in the number of refugees and migrants travelling to Europe this year, migration and asylum returned to the top of the political agenda after far-right, anti-migrant parties entered coalition governments in Austria and Italy.

The Italian government threatened to close its ports to migrant ships after refusing to allow the French NGO-operated vessel Aquarius to dock in Sicily. The ship, carrying more than 600 migrants, was eventually granted permission to dock in Spain.

Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, leader of the far-right, anti-immigration League political party, indicated the country intended to take a radical new tack in accepting migrants and refugees, including pulling back the country’s navy and coastguard from patrolling the southern Mediterranean.

“We’ll always save human lives but we will order our ships to remain closer to the Italian coast,” Salvini said on June 18. “In the Mediterranean there are other countries that can intervene. We cannot allow half of Africa to be brought to Italian soil.”

However, just days later, an Italian Coast Guard ship carrying more than 500 migrants docked in Sicily. Italy said it intended to decide on a case-by-case basis which ships to allow to dock.

Italy and other so-called front-line countries have complained about the Dublin Regulations, which state that an asylum-seeker’s claims should be handled by the country where the person first arrives. The regulations — currently under review — enable an EU member to deport an asylum-seeker to another country. Many people warned of the dangerous precedent that could set.

The hard-line interior ministers of Austria, Germany and Italy announced the formation of an “axis of the willing” to combat illegal migration to Europe and the issue is expected to be a main issue at the summit.

“I think it marks very sensible cooperation that will contribute to reducing illegal migration to Europe,” Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said following a meeting with German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer in Berlin on June 13. “We believe an axis of the willing is needed to fight illegal migration.”

The migration issue is not just threatening to divide the European Union but could potentially lead to the downfall of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government.

Merkel, who leads a government coalition of her own Christian Democratic Union and its Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union (CSU), is under pressure from her coalition partners, who are demanding that the government take a much stronger line on migration.

Seehofer — an immigration hardliner and leader of the CSU — defied Merkel to announce tough new immigration policies that would see some asylum seekers turned away at the border, even suggesting that Germany would implement the proposal unilaterally in defiance of EU regulations.

Merkel and Seehofer ultimately agreed to postpone the immigration showdown until after the EU summit, which would allow her a chance to reach agreements with European leaders regarding whether Germany could turn back asylum seekers who had already registered elsewhere.

Participants at the EU summit in Brussels will try to reach a definitive multilateral solution to the issue of migration and asylum. Merkel is to attend the summit after visits to Lebanon and Jordan, countries that have the world’s highest number of refugees per capita.

French Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire warned that Europe was “in a process of disintegration” over the issue. “We see states that are turning inward, trying to find national solutions to problems that require European solutions,” he said.

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