Brexit Unity Cracks as EU Leaders Split on Migrants, Euro Area

(Bloomberg) -- The united front that European Union leaders claim in Brexit talks cracked at the bloc’s last summit of the year with heads of state and government clashing openly on migration and admitting to divisions on how to move the monetary union forward.

Even before the two-day gathering began in Brussels on Thursday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel appealed to fellow leaders at loggerheads over how to cope with migrants from across the Mediterranean. “We don’t just need solidarity on controlling and steering migration on our external borders,” Merkel told reporters on her arrival. “We also need internal solidarity. There cannot be selective solidarity among EU members.”

Donald Tusk, European Council President, warned of divisions on his way into the summit. “Today and tomorrow we will also deal with issues where a lack of unity is very visible and as you know I am talking about the European monetary union and migration,” he said.

Divisions on migration between frontline countries like Italy that feel abandoned by the rest of the bloc, and central and eastern nations especially, have resurfaced after Tusk branded mandatory resettlement quotas for migrants “ineffective” in a note sent to leaders.

‘Fully Aligned’

A pre-summit meeting between Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni, the leaders of the four Visegrad group countries -- Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia -- and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker did little to patch up differences on migration. 

The four agreed to contribute 36 million euros ($42 million) to a European Union fund to help cope with migrant flows through Libya, Gentiloni told reporters. The money is a “considerable” sum, said Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. 

For Slovak premier Robert Fico, the money clearly demonstrates “that Slovakia is no stranger to solidarity with respect to migration. On the contrary.” He added: “To travel to the European Union is not a human right. The EU must protect itself.” Juncker was also upbeat, calling the accord “proof that the Visegrad-4 countries are fully aligned when it comes to solidarity with Italy and with others.”

But Gentiloni struck a very different tone, underlining the fracture at the bloc’s heart. He described leaders at the meeting telling each other that “we are almost at extreme opposites” on how to treat borders inside EU. 

“We believe that closures are wrong, walls are wrong and that so-called obligatory resettlement quotas are the minimum for the EU,” said Gentiloni. “These countries legitimately have a very, very distant opinion, they are countries which close their borders.”

In his note to leaders before the summit, Tusk suggested stemming migration flows outside the block should be the priority, and making no mention of the need to distribute the burden internally. Merkel said on Thursday that Tusk’s outlines “are not enough.”

Banking Rules

Tusk’s comments on the monetary union echo EU diplomats who say that while consensus has emerged on the need to strengthen the euro area now that the economy is picking up, significant disagreements persist among key capitals, raising doubts about the bloc’s capacity to strike a wide-ranging compromise in the coming months.

These divisions are likely on crop up on Friday morning when leaders from all EU countries except the U.K. will discuss the future of the currency zone.

In order to come together, the bloc’s members will have to agree on a set of controversial reforms, including the completion of the post-crisis banking rules, the creation of a European Monetary Fund and the possibility of a dedicated euro-area budget and finance minister.

Tusk has asked leaders to come up with a roadmap at their discussion on Friday that sets out the path to an agreement on at least some of these issues by June. But so far there is little evidence that countries are willing to let go of their long-standing positions in order to move closer to a compromise, while the slow pace of German government coalition talks could derail this timeline. 

©2017 Bloomberg L.P.