The Third Rail of EU Politics Is Threatening to Wreck All the Bloc’s Plans

The European Union’s longstanding failure to agree on how to deal with migration threatens to disrupt the rest of its business.

(Bloomberg) — The European Union’s longstanding failure to agree on how to deal with migration threatens to disrupt the rest of its business. 

At a summit in Granada, Spain, French President Emmanuel Macron and Italy’s Giorgia Meloni triggered a diplomatic spat when they agreed to an impromptu huddle on the issue with Rishi Sunak of the UK. 

Spanish Premier Pedro Sanchez felt it distracted from the formal talks he was already leading and canceled a joint press conference Thursday with Sunak in pique, according to people familiar with the issue. On Friday, Hungary’s Viktor Orban had reporters checking their recordings in disbelief when he said attempts to strong-arm his country into accepting immigration decisions agreed by others was like a sexual assault. 

Tensions are running high because immigration is effectively becoming the third rail of European politics. Many leaders would prefer not to touch it because they have seen it end the careers of their colleagues, but the collective failure to address it runs through most of the issues they care most about. 

As they gathered in southern Spain, EU leaders planned to discuss welcoming new members, finding ways to enhance their geopolitical power, and deepening their common defense capabilities. And it was all hampered by the disputes over immigration. 

Orban has been using immigration as a political tool for years, both to stir up support for his populist government in Hungary and as a lever to extract concessions from his EU partners. 

In Granada, his anger was triggered by a migration pact, years in the making, with ambassadors clinching a tentative deal on the outstanding elements earlier in the week.

Hungary and Poland had both voted against the accord, but it was approved all the same under the EU’s so-called qualified majority voting rules. Under the agreement, member states would be allowed to choose whether to host their allotted quota of migrants or provide a different contribution to the common effort — either financial or non-financial. 

When you’re “forced” to accept a solution that “you don’t like, how would you like to have a compromise agreement?” Orban raged. “It’s impossible.”

Despite that tirade, diplomats from across the EU expect the pact to win final approval before next year’s European Parliament elections in order to blunt the message of populists seeking to exploit the issue for political gains.

But that’s a small step to resolving a problem that is only going to get worse as climate change makes the ecosystem across the Mediterranean in Africa increasingly inhospitable. Rivals like Russia’s Vladimir Putin have already learned to exploit the way immigration can fuel internal tensions in the EU – Russia helped to trigger the continent’s last two immigration crises with its military operations in Syria and Ukraine. 

This week’s clash also highlights fundamental flaws in the way the EU operates, according to a French official who was present at the talks — the bloc’s cumbersome decision-making processes and its uneasy relationship with workers moving between member states. Both need to be fixed to create a path to membership for Ukraine and the countries of the Western Balkans, the official said. 

The bloc is weighing how to adapt to prevent an influx of new members leading to endless gridlock over difficult issues. 

Under the current arrangement, every member state has a veto in many policy areas and even when they don’t, the prevailing attitudes toward collective decision making can lead to blow-ups when they don’t get their way, as Orban’s outburst showed.  

Many people in the EU are also uneasy about the current migrant numbers and those could increase if more than 60 million people in eastern Europe join the bloc, an EU diplomat said. The UK vote to leave the EU came 12 years after an earlier wave of expansion opened the doors for millions of migrant workers to move to Britain. 

In the shorter term, Italy is on track to receive the biggest number of migrant arrivals since 2016 this year while in Germany, the anti-immigrant AfD has seen a surge in support to overtake Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s Social Democrats in the polls. 

It’s probably no coincidence that Italy’s Meloni is fighting with Scholz over immigration policy. 

“The migration problem won’t be solved if a country dumps it on others,” Meloni said last week, complaining that German NGOs are rescuing migrants from the Mediterranean and then bringing them to ports in Italy. She wants German NGOs to take people they rescue from the sea to Germany instead. 

At a bilateral meeting in Granada, Scholz and Meloni discussed her failed effort to persuade Tunisia to help stem the flow of people trying to get to Italy across the sea. 

French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin has said Meloni’s government was “incapable” of handling migration flows, though the Italian leader has since patched things up with Macron. 

The French president in turn is under pressure from Marine Le Pen. He’s beaten the French nationalist in the last two presidential elections but there is concern that Le Pen could win next time when Macron hits his term limit. An increase in migration could play into Le Pen’s hands. 

Another European Council veteran, Mark Rutte of the Netherlands, is preparing to step down after his country’s snap election next month. Rutte’s coalition collapsed in July after he tried to force his partners to introduce tougher restrictions on refugees. 

Last week’s elections in Slovakia threw another wrench into the EU’s efforts. Roberto Fico, the hardliner poised to form a new government, has pledged to crack down on migration flows unilaterally. “We will need to use force,” he said. “It won’t be a pretty picture.”

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki faces his own election on Oct. 15 and he lined up alongside Orban in Granada to attack the EU decision to push through the immigration pact. 

Morawiecki has also sought to weaponize the issue in his campaign, attacking his rival Donald Tusk for agreeing to a migrant relocation quota in the past and warning that he could do so again. 

His alliance with Orban landed Charles Michel, the European Council president, with a bloody nose as the summit wrapped up Friday afternoon. Michel was forced to issue a separate statement on immigration. 

–With assistance from Iain Rogers, Milda Seputyte, Daryna Krasnolutska, Zoe Schneeweiss, Diederik Baazil, Daniel Hornak, Jasmina Kuzmanovic, Katharina Rosskopf, Natalia Ojewska, Chiara Albanese, Jan Bratanic, Michael Nienaber and Kevin Whitelaw.

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