Europe enters the age of disintegration

Wolfgang Münchau

There will not necessarily be a formal break-up of the EU, but it will become less effective

 
 
There is now a real possibility that the EU system for border and immigration controls will break down in about 10 days. On March 7, EU leaders will hold a summit in Brussels with Ahmet Davutoglu, the Turkish prime minister.

The idea is to persuade Ankara to do what Greece failed to do: protect the EU’s south-eastern border and halt the flow of immigrants. There is a lot of behind-the-scenes diplomacy going on between Germany and Turkey. The mood in Berlin, however, is not good.
 
The action taken by Austria, Hungary and other countries to protect their national borders has shut the western Balkan route along which migrants had made their way to Germany.
 
Refugees now find themselves trapped in Greece. Some may leave for Italy by boat. When those who survive the journey arrive there, I would expect Slovenia, Switzerland and France to close their borders. At that point, we should no longer assume that the European Council of heads of government is a functioning political body.

A refugee crisis that spins out of control could tilt the vote in the British referendum. There is no way the EU will be able to deal with two simultaneous shocks of such size. Coming at a time like this, Brexit has the potential to destroy the EU.
 
I do not expect such a doomsday scenario, but it is not implausible either. The EU is about to face one of the most difficult moments in its history. Member states have lost the will to find joint solutions for problems that they could solve at the level of the EU but not on their own.

The EU’s population of more than 500m can easily absorb 1m refugees a year. No member state can do this alone, even Germany.

The tendency towards national solutions is particularly pronounced in central and eastern Europe.

Austria convened a western Balkan conference last week in support of its policies to restrict the number of refugees. Viktor Orban, Hungary’s prime minister, is holding a referendum to pre-empt a refugee quota-sharing agreement put forward by Brussels and Berlin. The Hungarians will surely support him.

Ms Merkel must take much of the blame. Her open-door policy was anti-European in that she unilaterally imposed it on her own country and on the rest of Europe. She consulted only Austrian chancellor Werner Faymann.
 
The EU is at risk of four fractures. I do not expect all of them to happen but I would be surprised if none did. The first is a north-south break-up over refugees. The so-called Schengen system of passport-free travel, in which 26 European countries take part, could be suspended indefinitely or become a miniature version comprising just Germany, France and the Benelux countries. Italy would not be part of it.

A second north-south faultline is the euro. Nothing has changed here. Echoes of the eurozone crisis linger on and the Greek position is as unsustainable today as it was last summer.

The third is an east-west divide. Will the open societies of western Europe want to be tied into an ever-closer union with the likes of Mr Orban or the other nationalists in central or eastern Europe?

Finally, there is Brexit. There is no way of knowing the outcome of the British referendum. The opinion polls are as useless as they were during last year’s general election.
 
More importantly, the debate has yet to start in earnest. Events will intrude; new facts or lies will emerge. A British vote to leave the EU may trigger referendums in Sweden or Denmark, adding further uncertainty.

A refugee crisis spinning out of control is ultimately more dangerous for the EU’s future than a fragmenting euro. What makes the refugee crisis politically more fraught is that this time France and Germany are at opposite ends of the argument.

News, comment and analysis on the referendum to decide whether Britain will leave the EU.
At the Munich Security Conference earlier this month, I was not surprised to hear Manuel Valls, French prime minister, reaffirming his opposition to additional refugee quotas, but I was surprised to hear him criticise Ms Merkel directly. It was not France that invited the refugees, he said.

The political impasse over migrants tells us that the EU’s open borders are inconsistent with national sovereignty over immigration. The member states will have to choose. They will choose sovereignty.
 
After nearly 60 years of European integration, we are entering the age of disintegration. It will not necessarily lead to a formal break-up of the EU — this is extremely unlikely — but it will make the EU less effective.

What is certain is that the refugee crisis adds a further layer of complexity to the British debate. It is not clear what kind of EU the British people are being asked to remain in, or to leave. Danger lies ahead.

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