Americans may not be aware of it, bombarded as they are in the trial by fire that is the interminable American presidential election, but something very disruptive is happening in Europe, where the migrant crisis has set in motion the galloping populism and the resurgent nationalism that threaten the laboriously built edifice of the European Union.
It is a sorry spectacle when a group of advanced countries such as Germany, France, Denmark and Austria react to the onslaught of migrants by restricting the freedom of movement introduced as a great European conquest under the name of the Schengen protocols.
It is an even more miserable show of desperation when the European powers haughtily decree that a wall should be erected at the border of Macedonia so that refugees are kept in a virtual stockade in the territory of Greece. The Greeks conceivably would have no choice but to throw back into the water the migrants who land in the flimsy rubber boats after the perilous crossing from Turkey. The same odious strategy of fencing-in dooms Italy as it tries to deal with the thousands who come to its shores.
Austria, a certified civilized country, is also about to build a fence at its border with Slovenia. And what can we say about the central European countries that were helped in unshackling the Soviet chains only to refuse adamantly at this time to give a helping hand in redistributing the migrants in democratic Europe?
It is a dismal picture compounded by the fear of terrorism, increasing instability in Spain, the financial tremors of the European economy and last but not least, the dangerous prospect of “Brixit”, the possible outcome of a referendum that could cut the British out of the European Union. In turn, such a disaster could prompt the Scots to stay in the European Union and cut their moorings with Britain.
But there is more that could come. The threat of a full-blown crisis of the ruling coalition in Germany is another aspect of the turmoil that is putting the European Union to its most severe test of survival. What a difference a few months, and several thousand migrants can make for the political fortunes of a leader who was looked upon as the most powerful woman in the world. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has lost so much of her political glow that the authoritative Bild Zeitung in Germany asks the question on its cover: “Is Merkel the Right Person?” echoing the strong criticism of the Christian Social Union of Bavaria for the chancellor’s “open door” policy toward asylum seekers.
Chancellor Merkel did take a courageous stand in opening the frontiers to the migrants, most of them from Syria and Iraq. But now she is forced to backpedal as Berlin estimates that between 800,000 and a million refugees will arrive in Germany this year.
In the face of declining poll numbers for Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, a few of her ministers are calling for a tougher stand, including deportations for those who are unable to obtain asylum.
Germany is increasingly isolated in the flux of European politics and the United States is not helping the situation. When Chancellor Merkel threatened Greece with expulsion from the European monetary system, President Obama objected to such a drastic measure.
Another irritant in U.S – Germany relations is the Volkswagen scandal in which many Germans see an American hand that is hostile to the German surplus generated by exports. On another front, Chancellor Merkel has gone along with sanctions against Russia but only up to a point, as demonstrated by the German intent to revive the North Stream project to import Russian gas.
Not surprisingly, Italian Prime Minister Renzi has complained that Germany was intransigent in blocking the project of a similar gas pipeline in the south with a terminal in Italy.
Following the suspension of the Schengen free movement architecture, Europe is faced with the political inability of the major countries in facing up to the disarray. It is as if these countries were expressing their lack of trust in the minor members of the union.
The very person who seemed to be the custodian of European integrity is now looked upon as responsible for the loss of solidarity among European states. The bad rhetoric has killed the reality of an unraveling situation that leaves Italy to scramble to accommodate the migrants and Greece to deal with the mounting crisis on many small islands not far from the Turkish coast. This too is the result of the deficient European construction that excluded the Turks when they were pursuing membership in the union.
One suspects that the Turks are paying Europe back by letting hundreds of rubber dinghies take to the Aegean Sea from its coastline. Fear of terrorism, mounting protests and the populist reactions in old Europe have engendered the humanitarian crisis caused by an exodus of biblical proportions. The irony is that the European economic system is potentially able to receive immigrant workers to fill the needs of a demographically shrinking populace.
The United States does it best and it is also better able to control its borders, in spite of what Donald Trump says. A restricted Schengen perimeter may work for a while but the crisis at the frontier will not go away soon. Spring is coming and hordes of refugees will keep crushing into Italy and Greece.
Instead of being ruled by a giant and inept bureaucracy, the European Union needs forward thinking politicians of the caliber of those who founded the European Community and buried once and for all the specter of war on the European continent