Brexit has forced the EU to give the impression that it is a united front. But the reality is that Brexit has only masked the vast amounts of disunity within the bloc and nothing divides member states more than immigration policy. Immigration has been an issue that has been slowly simmering below the surface within the European Union. However, with the summit to take place next week, arguments could reach boiling point.
Firstly, there’s the issue of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has been battling to retain her job with her Interior Minister, Horst Seehofer, a member of her Coalition partner, the CSU, rebelling against the EU’s border policies.
Under EU regulation, countries have to go through a certain process before turning asylum seekers away, which includes submitting a formal request to return them to the state where they registered their first claim for refuge.
However, Mr Seehofer has demanded that German police immediately be given powers to turn away migrants at the border if they were already registered as asylum seekers in other EU countries. Ms Merkel has rejected the policy but has been given a stay of execution, with the Government giving her until the EU summit next week to resolve the issue.
Then there is Hungary, which is continuing to be a thorn in the side for the EU by pressing ahead with a parliamentary vote on the “Stop Soros” bill. The bill, which would empower the Hungarian Interior Minister to ban non-government organisations that support migration and are seen as a national security risk, is part of the nationalist government’s campaign against George Soros, an 86-year-old Hungarian-born US financier known for funding liberal causes.
In Eastern and Central European countries, the Soros-funded Open Society Foundations has pushed for more acceptance of refugees and migrants, making the organisation a natural target for populist leaders such as Hungary’s populist Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.
The new legislation, would impose jail terms on people or organisations deemed to be aiding illegal immigration was a key aspect of Mr Orbán’s manifesto going into last month’s elections.
Immigration is a strong issue for Hungary, which is in full-step with other central European countries and other northern European states in full opposition to immigration quotas as a way of sharing the burden of high asylum applications.
Quotas were pushed through by a qualified majority vote in 2015 but Budapest was a vocal leader opposed to the move. The system lapsed last year but there has been a feeling of enmity since.
Discontent has been simmering on the surface since 2015 but now it seems it may erupt once more because of a new proposal for a permanent quota system. Next week all eyes will be on this quota system and whether the likes of Germany will be willing to give way to the likes of Hungary on immigration.
A further issue set for discussion is the responsibility of the asylum seekers when they arrive in the EU. There is a measure in current EU legislation, that makes countries where asylum seekers first arrive responsible for them for many years. In other words, people could be returned to the place where they registered their first refugee claim if they turn up in another EU member state during that time.
Some northern European countries would like the period to be as long as 10 years, whereas “frontier” Mediterranean states want it to be as short as possible. EU diplomats apparently believe this is an area more ripe for compromise than quotas, because it is essentially an argument over duration rather than principle. But there is no sign for now that an accord will be ready for next week’s summit.
Then of course there is the issue over the boats transporting the migrants. Italy, which is also experiencing significant anti-EU sentiment, triggered arguments between Malta and France last week. Rome refused to allow the migrant rescue ship, the Aquarius, to dock. Eventually the Spanish Government stepped in but there is no guarantee this could be the last of these disputes and how the EU will handle them in the future will be a significant test.
The EU is apparently now considering an off-shore option, where “economic migrants” would be weeded out from “those in need of international protection”, according to draft summit conclusions. It’s expected that such facilities would be in an African country such as Tunisia.
Many EU countries have recently called for the creation of offshore facilities as part of hardening efforts to keep migrants outside the bloc unless their asylum applications are ruled valid. It’s an option favoured by countries such as Australia, which favour off-shore processing as a method for control.
Although the plan is winning influential support, it faces political and practical hurdles, with one expert saying it is not clear how the EU would get foreign countries to agree to be “vassal states”.
Immigration has been an issue simmering on the surface for years within the European Union. Although the establishment seem to have kept it at bay until now, it seems we are now at boiling point.