Stakes rise for Merkel as EU remains divided on migration burden

Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor. (Bloomberg pic)

BRUSSELS: European leaders put on a brave face over their persisting differences on how to handle migration flows, even as the lack of tangible progress could further escalate a crisis that threatens to unravel the bloc’s passport-free travel area and create a rift in Germany’s governing coalition.

“There was a lot of goodwill today and, next to a few differences, a large amount of common ground,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said after an informal gathering of leaders in Brussels on Sunday. “We will continue to work toward a solution.”

Those participating in the meeting had different priorities: Frontier countries, including Italy, seek more assistance from their peers with border protection and a more equitable allocation of migrants 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.

Nobody at the summit accepted Merkel’s proposal that willing member states form separate agreements where EU-wide consensus isn’t possible, instead insisting on a European solution, according to an EU government official familiar with the discussion. This is a blow for the chancellor who had promised her Bavarian allies that she would seek to overcome any stalemate in the EU with bilateral deals.

A potential failure to stem the flows of asylum-seekers into Germany raises the possibility of a mutiny by Merkel’s Bavarian coalition partners, which has threatened to defy the chancellor, risking a historic rift that could deny her alliance its majority.

Merkel stressed that European countries wouldn’t be left alone in dealing with “primary migration” while others were left responsible for migration within the bloc. “Everyone is responsible for everything,” she said.

Comprehensive Deal
An EU government official told reporters that Rome won’t discuss a deal with Merkel on secondary migration between member-states unless it’s part of a comprehensive package spreading responsibility for handling incoming protection-seekers from frontline countries to the entire bloc. Such a legal shift is opposed by hardline governments, including Poland, Hungary and Austria, which are against mandatory quotas for the allocation of refugees.

The leaders agreed on less controversial moves, including a strengthening of the bloc’s border protection forces, and on striking agreements with African countries for the repatriation of those not entitled to asylum. But “the challenge today is linked to political pressure in certain EU countries and particularly the aspect of secondary migration,” French President Emmanuel Macron conceded, while alleging that some governments are trying “to instrumentalize the situation of Europe to try to create fear and feed political tensions.”

Discussions are set to continue over a formal EU Summit of the bloc’s 28 leaders in Brussels on June 28. “Going back to Rome satisfied,” Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said in a tweet. “We have the impression that we took the right direction in the ongoing debate.”