Splits on Immigration Policies Put Pressure on European Union

Italians protested last week after their country refused entry to the rescue ship Aquarius, stranding it offshore with 629 asylum-seekers. Spain accepted the ship on Sunday. (Alessandro Di Marco/ANSA via AP.)

CASTELBUONO, Sicily (CN) — European leaders are quarreling, and clamoring for a solution, over what to do with the flow of refugees and immigrants fleeing war-torn and impoverished nations and arriving at Europe’s borders.

A week ago, in rejecting a humanitarian ship’s plea to take in 629 people rescued from the Mediterranean, Italy’s new right-wing government opened a pivotal front in the battle over borders and migrants from outside the EU.

Blocking the immigrant flow to Italy is increasing pressure on other European nations to accommodate more of the tens of thousands of people seeking asylum in Europe.

That pressure is being felt keenly in Germany, where a row broke out this weekend between Chancellor Angela Merkel and her governing partner, Interior Minister Horst Seehofer.

Seehofer is threatening to implement a hard-line migration policy in two weeks unless Merkel can work with other European leaders to come up with a solution to ease tensions in Europe over migrants and refugees.

European newspapers are speculating whether this row could cause Merkel to resign, after Seehofer said he could longer work with her. Merkel has been a leading voice in Europe offering help to refugees.

“This is a moment of crisis,” said Wolfango Piccoli, co-president of Teneo Intelligence, an international political risk firm with headquarters in London. “In terms of this coalition union, this government, it is a crisis.”

But Piccoli doubted it would reach the point of breaking the union between Seehofer’s Christian Social Union and Merkel’s sister party, the Christian Democratic Union.

Seehofer’s CSU party is strong in Bavaria but it lost support in recent elections to the right-wing party Alternative for Germany.

“They will likely come up with some interim measures (on immigration),” Piccoli said Monday in a telephone interview with Courthouse News.

With immigration now at the top of the agenda, Merkel was expected to discuss the topic Monday with Italy’s new prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, and with French President Emmanuel Macron during a joint cabinet meeting in Germany set for Tuesday.

Across Europe, tensions are high between conservative and anti-immigrant political forces who fear Europe is losing its identity and security due to immigrant flows, and liberals who call it just and humane to help people suffering in Africa and Middle East.

Some political watchers say the tensions over immigration are so bitter they could threaten the European Union’s survival.

Europe is looking for a major new agreement on its immigration policies, but reaching an overarching deal will take a long time, Piccoli said.

“A pan-European deal in two weeks is impossible,” he said, referring to the deadline Seehofer reportedly offered to Merkel for finding solutions.

Dealing with what is happening in the Mediterranean Sea is unlike anything Europe has faced before, Piccoli said.

“What do you do when you have a boat stranded in the Mediterranean with women and children? Are you going to just leave it?” he said. “It’s very different from the past. Now there is an issue of international solidarity.”

The number of asylum seekers has dropped this year. Still, right-wing political parties have made gains across Europe, often campaigning on anti-immigrant platforms.

The fracturing over immigration policy has been occurring for some years, driven by increased warfare in the Middle East and Libya. Britain’s vote in 2016 to leave the European Union was largely backed by people supporting stricter borders.

Governments in Holland and Hungary, and now Italy, are calling for an overhaul of Europe’s immigration laws, in part to close borders and stem the flow of asylum seekers, but also to spread the burden of caring for asylum seekers throughout the EU.

Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini said Italy will continue blocking non-governmental vessels that rescue asylum-seekers from docking at Italian ports.

Meanwhile, Spain’s new Socialist government agreed to welcome the rejected ship, the Aquarius. It arrived Sunday in Valencia.

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