Angela Merkel had a message for her parliamentary colleagues on Thursday: the future of the EU rests on finding a solution to the migration issue.
The German Chancellor is right that today’s summit is a make-or-break moment for the EU. What she neglected to mention, however, is that the migration crisis is the direct result of the EU’s refusal to face up to its in-built contradictions.
To understand how we got to this point, it is worth thinking back to the EU’s other existential crisis.
Now it is common wisdom that the problems with the euro stem from attempting to have monetary union without fiscal union.
In retrospect, it seems obvious that for a common currency to work it requires not only a common central bank, but a bloc-wide fiscal agenda, set by a common finance minister, in order to balance the disparate needs of the various members.
This was, in fact, the hope of some EU federalists at the time. But there was not much appetite for relinquishing sovereignty among national governments or electorates.
Germany, in particular, was not going to risk its strong economic position to subsidise weaker countries, which Germans see as lazy and fiscally irresponsible. Even at the height of the euro crisis, there was little support in Germany for bailouts or debt restructuring that would have shared the impact.
If Merkel lacks allies at the summit now, the German-imposed austerity suffered by Greece and others might have something to do with it.
The migrant crisis is the result of a similar desire to force through unified ends without unified means – and again, Germany is at the centre.
Refugees (many of whom are in fact economic migrants) are meant to be processed in the first EU country they come to. In August 2015, Merkel made the shock decision to suspend that policy and open Germany’s doors.
Whether an altruistic move or a cynical attempt to force a more unified EU policy, it has not proved as popular as she’d hoped, and three years later she is finally facing the political fallout from her citizens.
The anti-immigration Alternative for Germany party enjoyed record results in September’s elections, and though a weakened Merkel clung to power, her coalition is teetering on mutiny. Her interior minister is threatening to undermine her open-doors policy in a move that could bring down her government if she doesn’t come back with results.
However, decades of mismatched policy mean that the tensions within the EU over its border cannot be reconciled.
The EU holds sacred the free movement of people, and the vast majority of members are within the border-free Schengen area. But border control is primarily the responsibility of national governments.
That’s an immense responsibility to place on the southern and eastern fringe nations, especially when it has not been matched with the resources to manage it effectively.
The EU border agency was only given the mandate to actually police the external border in 2016, after the crisis had hit its peak. With just 1,300 guards, it still lacks support and resources from member states, and despite the European Commission pushing for it to be expanded, national governments have been reluctant to cede border policing powers, or offer more money.
And it’s only going to get worse. This isn’t just about the war in Syria or the desolation of post-Gaddafi Libya (although neither show signs of being fixed anytime soon). The wealth disparity between Europe and the Middle East and Africa will inevitably tempt desperate people to cross a geographically small distance in the hope of a better life.
Nor is this necessarily a bad thing for Europe – immigration is a net economic positive. But decisions have to be taken about how it is managed and controlled. Furthermore, like it or not, immigration is not just an economic issue in the minds of voters.
If the EU wants a common migration policy to go with its common border – as Merkel is pushing for – it needs common border enforcement. It also needs to think hard about how to set that policy at a supranational level without voters feeling sidelined and dictated to.
Right now, the rise of anti-EU sentiment – from Hungary and Poland, to the new Italian government, to the growing support for right-wing parties in Denmark, Sweden, and indeed Germany – suggests that this is unacceptable to voters. In which case, there is no option but to suspend (or at least relax) Schengen and return to a national border policy.
That has been Merkel’s most uncrossable red line. It is one she might like to reconsider if she wants to keep her job. Germany’s coalition politics may seem calmer and more consensual than the adversarial style of the UK parliament, but the domestic backlash against her that has been simmering for three years is reaching combustible levels.
And though she is looking for EU allies, they are thin on the ground.
On migration, as with the euro, the EU has tried to lead without taking responsibility, to set policy without its members ceding the powers to make those policies work. That its fudged solutions have held together for so long is probably down to the German Chancellor’s iron force of will. She has dedicated her career to keeping the EU project alive.
But one woman cannot hold together its inconsistencies forever. And whether she likes it or not, as it stands, it looks like the only options on the table may be for the EU to soften – or break.