The Irish Times view on Angela Merkel’s problems: the free-travel zone is under threat
For much of Europe, fears of a hard border in Ireland tomorrow pale in comparison to fears of hard borders across the continent today
Germany chancellor Angela Merkel with Hungary’s far-right prime minister Viktor Orban. Migration, as Merkel repeats now on a daily basis, is the issue on which the EU’s fate rests. Photograph: Odd Andersen/AFP/Getty Images
After a punishing fortnight, and yet another crisis meeting, the German leader struck an eleventh-hour migration deal on Monday with her rebellious Bavarian allies. Faced with the collapse of her centre-right CDU/CSU political alliance, her coalition and her grip on power, Angela Merkel stared into the abyss – and blinked.
She agreed to three so-called “transit centres” on Germany’s border for expedited processing of so-called “secondary migrants”. If possible, they will be refused entry to Germany and returned to the EU country where they first filed for asylum. The “transit camp” proposal still has to clear a legal hurdle – European Commission lawyers – and a political hurdle: Dr Merkel’s wary Social Democratic Party (SPD) coalition partner.
The text of Monday night’s agreement insists it will not be implemented unilaterally by Germany, but on the basis of bilateral agreements with affected countries. Germany’s partners – in particular Austria – are underwhelmed at the chance of negotiating now the details of something Berlin has already agreed with Bavaria.
If all goes ahead, massive closed camps will be erected at three Bavarian border crossings to Austria, to contain the trickle of people who choose to seek asylum at these precise points. What happens at the rest of the soft German-Austrian border – all 819km of it – is not clear. That this is symbol politics is clear: there are no plans to open centres on Germany’s eight other borders, not even in Schleswig-Holstein, 1,000km to the north, where migrants refused asylum in Denmark and Sweden are now returning.
Europe is once again held hostage by Germany and its relentless regional election schedule. On October 14th, if the Bavarian CSU’s migration muscle-flexing fails to return its absolute majority in the Munich state parliament, expect another destabilising shudder similar to that now spreading. Within hours of Monday’s announcement, Austria and Italy led the way in announcing border controls. If more follow, the fundamental principle of free travel in Europe is threatened.
The only hope is that Germany’s migration standoff will concentrate the minds of EU leaders. Migration, as Merkel repeats on a daily basis, is the issue on which the EU’s fate rests. Even those far away from the migration front lines, who use geography or history as an excuse for not getting involved, will eventually feel the effects.
As Leo Varadkar witnessed last week in Brussels, an EU gripped by a migration crisis has limited attention or capacity to deal with other issues. For the rest of Europe, fears of a hard border in Ireland tomorrow pale in comparison to fears of hard borders across the continent today.