Embattled German Chancellor Angela Merkel is facing a series of crunchtime events in the coming week ahead of the July 1 expiration of the ultimatum handed to her by her coalition partner, the CSU, seeking a resolution to major disagreements over German refugee policy, and today's emergency gathering in Brussels may well set the stage for Merkel's eventual downfall.
European leaders gathered today in the Belgian capital for an informal meeting convened by the president of the bloc’s executive arm, Jean-Claude Juncker, and aimed at paving the way to a deal on the management of migration, amid what Bloomberg described as "an escalating crisis that threatens to unravel the bloc’s passport-free travel area and dissolve Germany’s governing coalition."
While there are numerous conflicting priorities, the underlying agenda behind today's meeting for most European nations is simple: how to curb immigration and either reduce the number of refugees currently present, or otherwise, slowdown the arrival of new refugees, the two direct consequences of Merkel's "open door" immigration policy spawned in 2015 at the peak of the Syrian refugee crisis, which ushered in more than 1.6 million migrants - mostly from Syria - in Germany and countless others across Europe, all the while preserving the image of a enlightened progressivism.
To be sure, the stakes are great not only for Merkel: with Europe's economy, public finances and unemployment relatively stable, immigration has emerged as the top concern for EU citizens.
However, it is highly unlikely that the European "refugee problem" which has been simmering for the past three years and culminated with Brexit, a nationalist wave across Central and Eastern Europe, an anti-immigrant Austrian chancellor and a populist government in Italy, will be resolved today, or any time soon for that matter as Bloomberg explains:
Participating leaders arrived with different priorities: frontier countries including Italy seek more assistance from their peers with border protection and a more equitable allocation of refugees between the bloc’s member states. Northern countries, including Germany, want to limit “secondary movements” of protection-seekers from the south, where they initially apply for asylum, to the more affluent states of the European core.
With the bloc’s 28 nations at loggerheads over the overhaul of rules that assign responsibility for asylum-seekers to the countries of first arrival but are not in practice enforced, the prospects for an EU-wide immigration agreement are slim, officials familiar with the discussions said.
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Angela Merkel herself played down expectations of any major breakthrough at the hastily-arranged talks: "We know that unfortunately, we won’t get a holistic solution to the migration problem at the European summit,” she said ahead of Sunday’s meeting. "That’s why it’s also about bi- or trilateral agreements."
In lieu of a grand bargain, Germany will instead seek a patchwork of bilateral deals with frontier states, which would limit secondary movements in return for financial support and yet unspecified other concessions. However, said support is unlikely to be permitted by her own government, exposing Merkel's dilemma: it is virtually impossible to satisfy both aggrieved European nations and her own political partners.
Here's why: as reported last week, in Germany, Merkel is facing an ultimatum from her Bavarian allies to either strike a deal for limiting the influx of asylum-seekers by the end of this month or face a mutiny that could trigger snap elections. In advance of the worst case outcome, already the German SPD party- which was crushed in the last vote, seeing its approval rating plunge to post WWII lows - is said to be preparing for new elections this September.
"The SPD is prepared for all scenarios,” SPD General Secretary Lars Klingbeil said. Der Spiegel had reported that the party’s preparations would include deciding who would run for chancellor.
At the same time, EU government officials in Brussels said that if Merkel gives in to the demands of Bavaria’s Christian Social Union party to turn away refugees already registered in other EU countries at the border, then the entire Schengen Area of visafree travel would be at risk of collapse.
Making matters worse, plans for the emergency meeting were thrown into chaos on Thursday when Italy’s new prime minister declared that a draft accord on migration had been withdrawn because of a clash with Merkel, according to Reuters.
“This is a political crisis we are going through,” French President Emmanuel Macron said as he entered Sunday’s meeting. “Let’s seek efficacy because we are guarantors of the cohesion of our countries and of our people" hinting that unless a solution is found, Europe may splinter.
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Unfortunately talking efficacy may not be enough: adding to Merkel's woes, Italy has said it won’t agree on a deal to limit flows towards Germany unless there’s an agreement to spread the burden of migration. But, as Bloomberg notes, the so-called Visegrad countries of Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia, as well Austria, won’t sign off to any revamp of common rules that would force them to receive refugees from frontier countries. This effectively means that no European nation wants to accept any more migrants.
“We are here to present an Italian proposal” for reforming the so-called Dublin rules for the allocation of asylum-seekers, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said before Sunday’s meeting. “We want to solve the problem in a structural manner.”
That however won't happen today: confirming Europe's growing rift, the four Visegrad leaders didn’t join Sunday’s meeting. Only 16 nations confirmed participation ahead of the gathering, while EU President Donald Tusk, who normally presides over gatherings of leaders, has refused to attend.
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But the biggest clash today will be between Germany and Italy.
In an interview with Spiegel magazine, Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini gave a foretaste of the challenge Merkel faces in clinching a deal: “In a year it will be decided if a united Europe still exists or not.” He also made it clear that Italy was not ready to take in even a single migrant more. Italy has taken in 650,000 boat migrants in the last five years, and objects to the German proposal that asylum seekers should be returned to the EU country they first registered in.
Arriving at the Sunday summit, Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel tried to tone down the implications of its outcome for Merkel: "This is not about the survival of a chancellor. It’s about finding a solution, and I hope a common one, for a migration and asylum policy in Europe. We need that.”
What he failed to add is that finding a "solution" is explicitly tied to the survival of the chancellor, and one right now appears improbable. As Bloomberg notes, while the pace of arrivals has dropped sharply compared with previous years, the hardening rhetoric from Italy’s populist coalition and right-wing governments including Austria’s has soured relations among the bloc’s members.
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And then there is Merkel's domestic conflict: the leader of the CSU parliamentary group, Alexander Dobrindt, said it could not be ruled out that migration might break up the historic alliance between his party and the CDU.
“I have always believed in the common destiny of the CDU and CSU,” he told Spiegel magazine. “But it is unclear at the moment if a common path for action and positions can be found.”
To stave off any coalition crisis, Merkel is pushing other EU leaders towards more measures to stem immigration to the bloc and restrict movement of those migrants who make it there. United Nations refugee agency chief Filippo Grandi on Friday urged them to “find a new and united approach” to migration and asylum, saying it was achievable.
However, defying his optimism, Bulgaria said it would argue at the weekend talks for the EU’s external borders to be shut completely to migrants and centers for war refugees set up outside its territory.
Today's informal meeting is segue to the formal EU summit, scheduled for June 28, in which migration will be among the key topics: "The meeting on Sunday is a consultation and working meeting at which there will be no concluding statement,” Merkel told a news conference on Friday during a visit to Lebanon. “It is an initial exchange with interested member states.”
Others tried to echo the upbeat sentiment: "Today is not about an inner German fight,” Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said on Sunday. “A European solution for the migration problem is possible.”
The core conflict, however, one in which a European solution guarantees "inner German" political crisis, and vice versa, would most likely culminate with the sacrificial end of Merkel's political reign.