(Bloomberg) -- Three summers after Europe’s biggest migration influx since World War II, the old wounds are reopening.
Lingering political tensions over the unresolved question of how to control immigration from outside Europe have now broken out into the open, and the fallout is reshaping alliances and stoking old rivalries from Rome to Berlin, Paris and Vienna.
The issue has returned most visibly in Italy, where Matteo Salvini, leader of the anti-immigrant League, lost no time in falling out with some close European allies over his decision to deny access to port for a refugee vessel. But it’s also forced uncomfortable decisions in Spain and is threatening Chancellor Angela Merkel, who faces renewed domestic turbulence over her open-door stance on migrants that could yet spell her early departure.
The influx of refugees in 2015-2016 frayed social cohesion and threatened to topple governments. The paradox is that the number of arrivals has fallen dramatically since. But opposing political positions are straining European Union ties just as the bloc is desperate to demonstrate unity in the face of other external challenges, from Brexit to President Donald Trump’s protectionist trade policies and the rise of China.
“The migration issue is clearly extremely divisive,” said Guntram Wolff, director of the Brussels-based policy group Bruegel. “How we deal with this and how we formulate a European response -- that’s the real issue.”
The lack of a coherent EU response after eastern European members refused to accept their share of migrants helped bring the League to power in Italy, the EU country that’s experienced more arrivals than any other this year.
Just over a week since starting as interior minister in a coalition with the Five Star Movement, Salvini made his move, refusing to grant access to a migrant boat carrying about 600 people rescued in the Mediterranean. After Malta too denied it safe harbor, the Spanish government -- itself only a week old -- stepped in to accept the refugees, prompting French President Emmanuel Macron to denounce Italy’s actions as “cynical and irresponsible.”
Salvini retorted that Italians “don’t need lessons from anyone on generosity and solidarity.” Italy’s finance minister canceled talks with his French counterpart, and Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte may not now meet Macron as planned on Friday.
The dispute is potentially more far-reaching than differing attitudes to migration: It threatens to unpick the fragile alliance between the biggest southern European countries that Macron needs if he is to have any hope of strengthening the euro area.
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez’s decision to let the Aquarius dock in Valencia may help burnish his liberal credentials. In any case, immigration isn’t a divisive issue in Spain. But he must still decide how to respond to the next vessel turned away by Italy.
Disunity over migration is seen as an existential EU threat by Merkel, whose decision to open Germany to refugees in 2015 hurt her ratings and led to the election last year of the anti-immigration AfD, the first far-right party in the Bundestag since the immediate postwar years.
“How we deal with the migration problem is something of a litmus test for Europe’s cohesion and its future,” Merkel said in Berlin on Wednesday evening.
Merkel is under pressure from her own interior minister, Horst Seehofer, who wants to turn back refugees at the German border. Merkel rejects the proposal because she argues that governments need to come up with a Europe-wide solution. It’s a clash of views with no easy solution.
The EU as a whole is divided. While some governments emphasize the need to bolster the bloc’s external borders so that migrants don’t arrive in the first place, others say policy must focus on redistributing people so the burden is spread more evenly.
Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, who assumes the six-month rotating presidency of the EU on July 1, falls in the former camp. Speaking alongside Seehofer on Wednesday, he said he’s lobbying for an “axis of the willing” against illegal migration with Italy and Germany. Kurz will address Parliament in Vienna on Thursday on his EU plans with the motto “A Europe that protects.”
Kurz came to power last year at the head of a coalition with the far-right Freedom Party, just one example of how anti-immigration sentiment is rising to become the public’s No. 1 concern in countries across the EU.
“Immigration has already reconfigured the political space in Europe,” said Antonio Barroso, a political analyst at Teneo Intelligence in London. “When these issues take hold, it is very difficult to get these parties off the stage.”
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