Salvini Tells Germany Next Year Will Show Whether EU Has Future

(Bloomberg) -- Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini said the next 12 months will determine whether the European Union can hold together as the bloc’s leaders prepare for emergency talks on immigration this weekend.

Since taking office as part of a populist coalition last month, Salvini has been stirring up tensions over migration policy, refusing rescue ships access to Italian ports, sparring with French President Emmanuel Macron and demanding other EU countries take more of the asylum seekers landing in Italy from Africa. That’s set Italy on course for a clash with German Chancellor Angela Merkel at a meeting in Brussels Sunday.

In Berlin, Merkel is under pressure from her own interior minister, Horst Seehofer, who is threatening to defy the chancellor unless she secures a deal that allows Germany to send migrants back to the countries where they first arrived in the EU -- and that means the Mediterranean frontier states Italy, Spain and Greece.

As she fights for her political survival, Merkel is coming under fire from an array of so-called allies. U.S. President Donald Trump on Friday repeated his threat to slap a 20 percent tariff on European car imports while 11 northern EU countries -- typically supporters of Germany’s insistence on fiscal discipline -- criticized her agreement with Macron to set up a euro-region budget to add stability to the bloc.

Veiled Threat

Salvini, who is also deputy premier in Italy, told German magazine Der Spiegel the EU’s response to its multiple challenges over the next year will show “whether the whole thing makes no sense any more.”

As well as his demands for help with immigration, Salvini cited the EU budget rules constraining his populist coalition’s spending plans and the European parliamentary elections next May -- possibly a hint that he might dial up his anti-euro rhetoric again if he gets any encouragement from voters.

Merkel’s most pressing concern is the showdown over border security with Seehofer’s Bavaria-based Christian Social Union party. Faced with a CSU threat to send certain asylum seekers back at the German border, the chancellor will seek to lay the groundwork for a European solution that avoids border closures at Sunday’s meeting of most EU leaders on migration in Brussels.

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has said he won’t discuss how to deal with asylum seekers who are already in Europe until he has commitments from other member states to help Italy deal with new arrivals.

Salvini told Der Spiegel that he is aware that his hardline stand on migrants could lead to the chancellor’s downfall. He added that this isn’t Italy’s intention “even though we’re very far apart, not just on the migration issue.”

Budget Plan

The fights over immigration has also become tangled up in the debate over how to make Europe’s monetary union more robust -- that was supposed to be the main item on the agenda of the formal summit talks which begin next Thursday.

Merkel and Macron thrashed out an agreement to create a euro-zone budget and beef up its crisis-fighting mechanisms earlier this week, but on Friday they came under fire from a group of 11 northern EU members.

“Wide divergence existed on the need for a euro zone budget/fiscal capacity, as many also pointed to moral hazard risks as well as fiscal neutrality,” the countries finance ministers said in a letter to Eurogroup President Mario Centeno. “There was clearly no consensus on starting to explore options.”

Merkel herself projected calm, dismissing speculation that her government is in trouble and vowing to keep her three-party coalition afloat.

Sunday’s summit will be “a first exchange,” Merkel told reporters in Beirut on Friday. And she acknowledged that a regular meeting of all EU leaders on June 28-29 won’t produce a comprehensive immigration plan either. She said there’s still a lot of work ahead for her fourth-term government, which took office in March with a mandate until 2021.

“I’m working toward the coalition being able to fulfill the tasks it set for itself in the coalition agreement,” she said.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.