Britain’s future, migrant split reveal growing EU divide

BRUSSELS – Britain is thinking of leaving. Greece feels isolated. Austria and Denmark are pushing controversial measures for coping with asylum-seekers despite what their neighbours think.

Tensions between European Union leaders at this week’s summit in Brussels have highlighted a gnawing lack of confidence that the bloc of 28 nations can provide timely answers to Europe’s challenges.

Rarely has the EU seemed as fragmented and impotent as on Friday, when leaders grappled with a possible British exit and tried to find a united response to the refugee emergency.

“The fact that every policy being discussed is strongly contested is fueling doubts as to whether the EU and its members will be able to match their rhetoric with concrete actions by co-operating more closely,” Janis Emmanouilidis at the European Policy Centre think-tank wrote in an analysis.

Still barely recovering from an economic crisis that rivalled the Great Depression, Europe is now struggling with its biggest refugee crisis in well over half a century.

The arrival of more than 1 million people fleeing conflict or poverty for better lives in a far wealthier Europe has overwhelmed border authorities and reception capacities. It has stoked unfounded fears of a threat to Europe’s cultural identity and even religion, the arrival of extremism or the theft of jobs.

As tens of thousands of people have packed into trains or hiked Europe’s highways north from Greece toward their dream of having a home in Germany or Sweden, nations have erected fences or tightened border controls unilaterally, putting pressure on their EU partners.

The Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia are working together, pushing for a clampdown on borders along the main migrant transit route through the Balkans.

And even nations like Austria and Denmark are out of step with other EU nations.

Austria has surprised its partners by putting a cap on the number of asylum-seekers it will let in, a move the EU’s Executive Commission maintains breaks European and international law. Denmark, meanwhile, has moved to take away some assets from asylum-seekers to help pay for their accommodations and food.

“The problem is that everyone sees the situation from their individual standpoint and waits for the other to move first in implementing those necessary solutions,” European Parliament President Martin Schulz told leaders in Brussels. “Lamentably, this crisis is exposing serious fault-lines within our union.”

The crisis is also hurting Europe on a psychological level, with the refugee response increasingly unworthy of Europe’s proclaimed values and possibilities as a powerful, relatively prosperous world trading bloc.

Professor Hendrik Vos of Belgium’s University of Ghent, says EU migration policy is hardening along the lines of Hungary’s populist leader, Viktor Orban, who has erected anti-migrant razor-wire fences.

“The language may be a bit less aggressive, and there are humanitarian concerns, but the policy is really going in the direction of: How do we keep the refugees out?” he said.

The fear of EU migrant workers taking advantage of Britain’s welfare system is partly driving Prime Minister David Cameron’s push for a referendum on whether his country should leave.

At the summit, Cameron pushed his partners for reforms that include limiting benefits to those migrant workers, ensuring that nations like Britain that are outside the euro currency union don’t have to pay for euro needs, as well as simplifying EU bureaucracy. In exchange, he pledged to campaign for Britain to stay in the bloc.

The circumstances of this week’s summit are quite unique. Britain’s 27 partners have spent significant time, energy and political capital in accommodating British demands. But with populist parties gathering support around Europe, the leaders must also convince their skeptical publics that nothing has been surrendered or lost.

“We all pursue our national interests, but we should bear in mind that if Britain leaves we all get nothing,” Estonia’s prime minister, Taavi Roiva, said Friday as he arrived for the second day of the summit.

But it doesn’t stop with Britain’s future or the refugee emergency.

Italy’s economic woes have seen Prime Minister Matteo Renzi aggressively take German Chancellor Angela Merkel to task in recent months on the economy, migration and energy policy.

While ostensibly Europe’s driving force, Merkel has also become synonymous with the austerity measures imposed on countries like Greece to meet fiscal targets and budget plans.

Through it all the future of Greece, with a communist government elected a year ago, remaining in the euro single currency has been called into question.

Poland too is making its voice heard. Riding a populist wave to power, the new right-leaning government in Warsaw refuses to allow policy to be dictated from outside. It is resisting EU pressure to amend newly passed laws that restrict the media and changes to its constitution that its EU partners argue are not compatible with Europe’s approach to the rule of law.

The upshot is that the more Europe bickers, the worse things are likely to get.

“In a world of globalization, there is a drive for new narratives. So it’s easy for populist parties to criticize what is happening in Europe,” Daniela Schwarzer, Europe program director at the German Marshall Fund, said Friday.

“There are societies in Europe in different stages of development,” she said, adding that some EU countries, in Eastern Europe and the Baltics in particular, have little experience with migration and the influx of new religions and cultures.

“If Europe brings this to the country then Europe is seen as being to blame,” she said.


Associated Press writer Raf Casert in Brussels contributed to this report.