Europe’s meltdown in the face of its biggest post-1945 immigration emergency is generating the worst East-West split since the Iraq war, when then-US secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld divided it into “new Europe and old Europe” — his supporters and opponents.
On Thursday, Germany and France ordered the European Commission to come up with a new “permanent” and binding regime for spreading the refugee load across all of the 28 nations in the EU. British Prime Minister David Cameron and British Home Secretary Theresa May want nothing to do with the scheme and have absented themselves from the policymaking.
On Friday, the prime ministers of Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic told Paris and Berlin to go to hell, arguing that Western European-style multiculturalism is nothing but trouble and that they have no intention of repeating the same mistakes.
The commission has already done what Berlin is demanding. On Wednesday, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker is set to unveil proposals obliging at least 22 nations with a combined population of nearly 400 million to absorb 160,000 people from Italy, Greece and Hungary, which are struggling with influxes from the Middle East and Africa.
The seven nations of central Europe and the Baltic are being asked to take fewer than 30,000. It should not be a problem for big international cities such as Warsaw, Prague and Budapest.
However, the eastern Europeans are retreating into parochialism, digging into their national bunkers while nursing resentment at what they perceive to be German bullying.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban is the cheerleader of the “Europe is useless” chorus, but Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico and Czech President Milos Zeman are not far behind. Polish Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz sounds more moderate, but she looks likely to lose an election next month to the nationalist right. Her hands are tied.
There is no “European” immigration policy or regime. There is a mish-mash of national policies which are contradictory, incoherent and fragmented. National governments guard these prerogatives jealously.
Europe in the form of the EU authorities in Brussels has minimal say over policymaking. Almost all power lies with heads of national governments and interior ministries.
However, in this crisis, Brussels-bashing has become routine, the cheap and easy option for shameless national leaders acting unilaterally, blocking every suggestion that comes out of Brussels and then blaming it for the ensuing chaos.
Orban proved the point in Brussels last week. “Europe” had failed, its leaders had irresponsibly created this mess, their response was “madness,” he said.
He has put up a razor wire fence on the border with Serbia and announced he was fast-tracking legislation to establish a zero immigration regime within 10 days, with the army deployed on the border.
Brussels cannot stop him because these powers are national. If necessary, Orban said he would put up another fence on the border with Croatia, a barrier between two EU countries. On Friday, Brussels shrugged and said it did not like it, but it could do nothing about it.
Brussels’ “all-powerful” bureaucrats are relatively impotent when it comes to immigration. For months the Italians, French, Austrians and Germans have been quietly re-establishing controls on the internal national borders of the open Schengen travel zone, which are supposed to be proscribed. Brussels cannot stop them.
A commission spokeswoman said Italian police controls on the border with Austria were not border controls.
The commission is charged with policing the regime governing Schengen, but Germany unilaterally waived the rules regulating how immigrants entering the EU are handled. It did not tell Brussels, nor neighboring governments.
Berlin is winning plaudits everywhere for its exemplary generosity and its open-door policy toward Syrians fleeing war, but Syrians can only get to Germany through other EU nations who were not told about the policy flip-flop. That contributed to the wretched scenes in Hungary and Austria.
Uniquely in Europe, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has seized the moral high ground on Syrian refugees.
However, this is the same leader who, a few years ago, said that “multikulti has absolutely failed.”
She is known to be acutely risk-averse, with a close eye on the polls which have shown her ratings slip over recent weeks. For more than a year the Germans have been complaining bitterly that people entering Italy and Greece were deliberately not being registered by the national authorities, but simply encouraged to board trains and buses for Germany.
Then they shifted and declared unilaterally that Syrians could come anyway.
The commission can propose a panoply of measures aimed at creating more joined-up policies. It did so in May and is to extend the effort this week. However, they are instantly shot down by national police ministries.
As European Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans said on Friday “asylum policies in Europe are not aligned.”
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