The Irish Times view on migration: The EU’s chief battleground

A summit that ended with a joint statement rather than a walk-out qualifies as a success, but the hard work is only beginning

German chancellor Angela Merkel speaks with French president Emmanuel Macron during a round table meeting at the European Council summit in Brussels on Thursday. Photograph: Geert Vanden Wijngaert/AP

German chancellor Angela Merkel speaks with French president Emmanuel Macron during a round table meeting at the European Council summit in Brussels on Thursday. Photograph: Geert Vanden Wijngaert/AP

 

The European Union, we are told, is dealing with a “migration crisis”. In fact, as French president Emmanuel Macron has remarked, this is above all a political crisis – one that has less to do with the inward flow of migrants than the rise of populist demagogues across the continent.

The beaches of Greece and the coastlines of Sicily and southern Spain are comparatively quiet this summer, a reflection of the declining arrival rates for migrants and asylum seekers. The number of people applying for asylum in the EU fell by 44 per cent last year, according to the EU’s asylum office, maintaining a trend that dates back to 2015, when more than a million people, many of them fleeing the war in Syria, entered the bloc. Counting both asylum seekers and other migrants, the UN migration agency reports a similar trend, with the inward flow having fallen by more than half this year compared to the same period in 2017.

These facts tend to be lost in the current fraught atmosphere across Europe, where populist far-right parties are benefiting from a certain public unease with the migration rates of the past decade while tactically exaggerating the phenomenon for their own political ends. With hard-right parties in power in Hungary, Poland, Austria and Italy, scare-mongering of Muslim arrivals has become a mainstream pursuit. The rise of those parties has also presented the EU itself with a grave challenge by turning immigration into the chief political battleground of the day.

Emerging from the European Council summit in Brussels yesterday, European leaders claimed a deal had been struck to end the standoff. If anything, that deal only underlined the scale of the chasm. The leaders agreed that EU states should help migrants rescued in the Mediterranean to ease the burden on Italy and Greece, but the commitments were vague and voluntary. They called for migrant processing centres in north Africa, but so far no African country has agreed to take part.

The deal reflects the fact that, while there is broad agreement on strengthing the bloc’s frontiers and increasing aid to African transit-states, a wide gap separates southern states such as Italy and others, including Poland and Hungary, which resist any EU-wide dispersal scheme. In the middle is Angela Merkel, whose own political future is in jeopardy due to her coalition partner’s mutiny over the migration issue.

In these circumstances, the bar for success is low. The fact that the summit ended with a joint statement rather than a walkout qualifies as an achievement. But the deal is only a start. The hard work is just beginning. And it’s clearer than ever that, unless an accommodation can be found on migration, the EU will find it impossible to turn its attention to anything else.

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