As hundreds of thousands of people risk lives to cross Europe’s frontiers seeking a haven of peace, Europeans themselves have turned on each other with a venom that has stirred memories of their own long conflicts.
“It’s about as poisonous as it could be,” said one veteran EU diplomat. The atmosphere in Brussels was “fetid”, he said, when leaders agreed on Thursday to hold an emergency summit next week to stem a spiral of recrimination.
That discord threatens not just the well being of refugees but many hopes for the Union itself.
Ministers have been unable to agree on how to share out the responsibilities of accommodating asylum-seekers. They will try to break the deadlock on Tuesday, a day before leaders meet. But it will not be easy.
Germany and other big powers could try to break ferocious resistance among smaller ex-Communist eastern states by forcing a vote to oblige them to take in mandatory quotas of refugees.
But what one diplomat called a potential “blood on the walls moment” would be, for another, the “worst signal you can send” to voters across Europe who are already growing sceptical of the benefits of membership and fear “being railroaded by Germany”.
The worse it gets, the more the risk of undermining efforts to confront other major challenges for the EU, from preserving a fragile common front in sanctioning Russia over Ukraine to patching up the euro zone and persuading Britain not to leave.
A compromise to share out refugees on a voluntary basis may emerge, diplomats say. But there are many other arguments and the east-west split on relocation may well not be the worst.
The EU prides itself on cementing peace and fostering prosperity by removing internal barriers among its 28 states.
But ambitions to act as one toward the outside world have fallen short. And now the arrival of crowds of migrants has seen not just razor wire and water cannon on external frontiers but borders going up again inside its Schengen passport-free zone.
Like the euro currency, whose optimistic architecture was founding wanting when economic crisis struck southern Europe, so the open borders system is now cracking as Syrian refugees pour across from Turkey to Greece, hoping for a welcome in Germany.
“The EU works reasonably well when sharing collective gains (from trade, for instance),” Philippe Legrain, a former European Commission adviser, wrote this week for Foreign Policy. “But it is hopeless at sharing out costs, whether the real ones of the financial crisis or the perceived ones of the refugee crisis.
“Seven long years of economic misery ... have shredded support for collective European action ... Unsurprisingly, then, the EU approach to the refugee crisis has been a shambles.”
EU officials argue Brussels has prepared plans in record time since April. But disputes among states, and divergent national policies on the asylum that countries must offer to refugees, are holding up action.
Jean-Claude Juncker, the former Luxembourg premier who has run the executive European Commission for the past year, urges an end to “finger-pointing”. But wrangling ahead of next week’s meetings shows disputes are dominating diplomacy:
- Italy and Greece say they cannot cope with migrants coming by sea who, under the EU’s Dublin system, should be given shelter and potentially asylum in the first EU state they enter.
- Germany, France and other northern states complain Italy and Greece are ignoring the Dublin rules on registering asylum-seekers and helping them travel north through the Schengen area.
- They now complain Italy and Greece are slow to accept EU help to properly register migrants and send back non-refugees, meaning many can drift across Europe working without documents.
- Hungary blames Greece for the tens of thousands arriving there this summer and has now fenced off its border with Serbia. The Commission and other states criticise Hungary for its fence while Budapest says its critics have no better ideas.
- EU leaders in June criticised Juncker for publicising his proposal of quotas for states to take in 40,000 asylum-seekers. And Juncker criticises leaders for setting only a voluntary target of 40,000 and then making pledges totalling just 32,000.
- Germany, anxious at the treatment of refugees in Hungary, said it would not apply the Dublin rules to Syrians and would process asylum claims from Syrians who entered the EU elsewhere. Hungary and others said Germany just triggered more immigration. Germany then annoyed its neighbours by suspending Schengen rules on some borders due to the migrants. Some others followed suit.
- Germany, France and others criticise eastern states led by Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Hungary for blocking a larger Juncker plan to relocate 120,000 according to quotas. Westerners say ex-Communist states lack solidarity after years of receiving EU subsidies and could be penalised by having their grants cut.
- Easterners accuse Germany of bullying, say relocation will only draw in more immigrants who will, in any case, not want to stay in eastern Europe but will defy the unenforceable Dublin rules and cross Schengen borders to Germany. Poor easterners in the euro zone note their “solidarity” in bailing out Greece.
Shambles? or democracy?
The squabbling has been echoed in a renewal of perennial tension between the Commission, which proponents of more federal government in Europe would like to see given more powers to act, and national governments that meet in the European Council.
Stung by criticism of “Brussels”, Commission officials note their power is limited. Variations in the welcome given refugees or benefits offered are national prerogatives.
An EU emergency response system to provide extra frontier guards can only be triggered by invitation - something Athens, caught up in debt crisis and new elections, has yet to issue.
Comforted by a strong vote on Thursday for its mandatory quota proposal in the European Parliament, another federalist institution, the Commission declared this “a clear signal to ... ministers ... that it is high time to act and finally agree”.
But national leaders insist on first seeking consensus among states. “I feel an allergy to coercion,” their summit chairman Donald Tusk, a former Polish prime minister, said last week.
Juncker last week suggested a common EU border guard service and some officials believe a single EU asylum system could make better sense than a patchwork of national policies.
But Tusk warned against forcing the pace of EU integration on a sceptical population. A “Europe built by egoistic states” would not change soon, he said, mounting a passionate defence of “decadent Europe ... with her never-ending negotiations”.
Some officials and diplomats see room for hope for next week: “I finally get the sense that people are taking this thing seriously,” said one EU official, adding there appeared more will to get past the issue of relocating refugees and focus on funding and cooperation with Turkey and the other neighbouring countries which are accommodating millions of Syrians.
Securing full Italian and Greek cooperation with EU efforts to register refugees and deport unwanted economic migrants - in return for assurances that other states will house those granted leave to stay - is also likely to feature on the summit agenda as leaders seek solutions they can sell to their voters.
Irked by charges that the response was “a shambles”, Juncker’s spokesman Margaritis Schinas told reporters: “Shambles or not shambles, that’s how the European Union works.”