Fortress Europe in the making for sure
Fortress Europe in the making for sure

Brussels: Deals on migration agreed in the European Union and Germany may end up more about rhetoric than reality but they indicate a shift toward a "Fortress Europe" way of thinking that could pose the bloc's biggest existential threat yet.

The deal in Germany to process migrants in police facilities within 48 hours on its southern border with Austria followed an agreement reached the previous Friday in Brussels to try to review asylum requests in camps around the Mediterranean, including Africa, and share responsibility for migrants rescued at sea.

Critics immediately slammed the two pacts as unworkable and possibly against EU law on the right to seek asylum. Most north African countries have already refused to host such sites because of potential security risks, among other things.

To make the German plan work, Berlin will need to secure bilateral agreements with the EU states where migrants first applied for asylum to take them back if necessary. Berlin says 14 countries have agreed to start negotiations, but pacts will be difficult to agree with those it needs most, Italy and Austria, where the governments hold a tough anti-immigration line.

Austria has said it may be forced in turn to protect its own southern borders, such as those it shares with Italy and Slovenia, to stop migrants transiting from the south.

With Italy and Malta both denying entry to rescue ships in recent days, pushing the vessels to Spain, rights groups say Europe is on its way to ceding its right to claim leadership on humanitarian issues rooted in its own World War Two experience.

Migration is playing an oversised role in European domestic politics, too. A showdown between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her conservative southern partner threatened to topple her coalition government though she appears safe for now. "It is my deep conviction that the migration question decides whether Europe will last," German Chancellor Angela Merkel told the German parliament last week.

A big part of the problem is that the EU has failed to distribute evenly among its population of 500 million what UN data shows is fewer than 2 million new arrivals since 2014, partly because countries like Poland and Hungary refuse to take part.

That has exacerbated disproportionate pressure on southern countries like Greece or Italy. Three years later, the problem has still not been resolved.

The political mood in Europe is increasingly turning against migrants. Italian new Interior Minister Matteo Salvini's use of the hashtag #stoptheinvasion on Twitter would have been considered beyond the pale for a member of a serving EU government just a few years ago.

One thing EU leaders have succeeded in doing so far is preventing the collapse of the cherished Schengen travel zone that feeds jobs and businesses across the bloc by guaranteeing control-free movement of people and goods. The threat to Schengen is real, however, as several countries including Austria, Germany and France have already introduced some emergency border checks since 2015.

Physically re-erecting dividing lines inside Europe could deal a mortal blow to what backers praise as the most successful peace project in Europe since World War Two, coming after the wounds caused by Britain's vote to leave. "If Schengen falls apart, this is it. There will no longer be an EU as we have known it," said an EU official.

By: Gabriela Baczynska

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