PARIS – It’s little wonder the European Union can’t find common solutions to Europe’s urgent problems when its main members are having such different national conversations.
Like the biblical Tower of Babel, Europe’s ambitious construction is in danger of toppling because its peoples are not speaking the same political language.
Tune in to Germany and the fierce debate is all about how to cope with an influx of a million migrants, whether to limit the numbers and, in some quarters, how to stop them coming.
Switch to France and you’re listening to a nation that thinks it is at war, still living under a state of emergency and in shock after last November’s attacks by Islamist militants that killed 130 people in Paris.
Flip to Britain and the talk is all of national sovereignty and a possible “Brexit” in the build-up to a June referendum that might end the country’s schizophrenic membership of the EU.
Look east to Poland and people are arguing over the new government’s moves to curb the media and the constitutional court, over who may have been a Communist informer 40 years ago, and over the perceived Russian threat to eastern Europe today.
Around central Europe the discussion is about how to resist German pressure to take in a share of refugees.
Turn south and the Italians and Portuguese are engrossed in domestically focused debates about how to revive economic growth despite the EU’s budgetary corset while cleaning up legacy bank problems. Spain meanwhile is preoccupied by Catalan separatism, political paralysis and the risk of a breakup of the country.
When those countries’ leaders come to Brussels, they often cannot even agree what they should be discussing.
For the last two EU summits, Britain wanted the focus to be on its demands for a renegotiation of its membership terms to give Prime Minister David Cameron a “new settlement” he can sell in a June 23 referendum on whether to stay in the bloc.
He secured a deal on Feb. 19, but many fellow leaders were frustrated at having to spend time on what they see as side issues and rhetorical formulations when their house is on fire.
“Everyone in the room and corridors was rather irritated that here we are dealing with some rather obscure issues of child benefits indexation, while we have real problems in Syria, member states closing borders, major issues we should really be on instead of this,” a diplomat involved in the talks said.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, fighting for her political life against domestic critics of her open door for refugees, wanted the EU to concentrate on urgent measures to secure Europe’s external borders, register migrants, send home rejected asylum seekers and share out refugees among EU states.
Desperate to find a common “European solution” to the migration crisis, she has forced yet another European summit on March 7 with Turkey, days before three German regional elections in which anti-immigration rightists could make big gains.
French President Francois Hollande, for his part, goes to Brussels seeking more cooperation against terrorism and support for military action against Islamic State in Syria and Libya. His prime minister, Manuel Valls, irked German officials by using a trip to the Munich Security Conference to criticize Merkel’s welcome for refugees and declare that Europe could not take any more migrants.
Unlike many past European crises, where disagreements could be postponed or salami-sliced into gradual steps that turned a political dispute into a technocratic process, there is no obvious way to delay or defuse the migration issue. Events on the ground are moving faster than the EU’s ability to manage them. Governments along the main Western Balkans migration route, under pressure from populist forces, are resorting to beggar-thy-neighbor solutions.
Austria, a key transit country, unilaterally imposed daily caps on migrant entries and asylum applications in mid-February.
In a sign of the waning authority of Brussels and Berlin, Austria brought together 10 central European and Balkan states last week — meeting without Germany, the EU authorities or Greece, the main arrival point for migrants — to coordinate national measures to choke off the northward flow of migrants.
As boatloads of migrants defy winter seas daily to cross from Turkey, that lockdown is rapidly turning Greece, the EU’s most economically enfeebled state, into a giant refugee camp.
Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has warned his country will not become “a warehouse of souls” and said he will hold up other European business if Athens’ partners do not share the burden.
EU countries have largely ignored the quotas of refugees they agreed last year to take in, and Hungary is now planning a referendum on whether it should have to accept any. Britain and France are keeping their heads down rather than helping Merkel, Europe’s most experienced and respected leader. Cameron won’t take any refugees already in Europe for fear that public hostility to migration could cost him the referendum. Hollande too fears fueling support for far-right populist Marine Le Pen if he offers Berlin more assistance.
Barring an improbable halt to arrivals from Turkey in the coming weeks, the most likely next step is that Europe’s 26-nation Schengen zone of passport-free travel will be officially suspended for two years to pre-empt a disorderly collapse. A major achievement of EU cooperation on a continent scarred for centuries by wars will be put into an induced coma to prevent it dying immediately. The result will likely be long lines at borders that had all but disappeared two decades ago.
At that point, Germany, with or without Merkel, will probably have to impose its own curbs on new migrants.
While Europe’s weak and divided leaders remain distracted by internal debates, the union that provided the framework for post-World War II prosperity will start to unravel.
Based in Paris, Paul Taylor is Reuters’ European affairs editor.