When 630 people were rescued by a ship called the Aquarius off the coast of Libya last weekend, little did they know their plight would set off a series of events that would deepen the divisions in an already fractured Europe. Within less than a week of the migrants’ rescue, the German government appeared ever closer to collapse, and the French and Italian governments were engaged in a diplomatic spat. The story of the Aquarius will now become part of European history, another chapter in the migration saga that began with German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-door refugee policy in 2015 and whose end seems much further away today than it did just a week ago.
‘Close the Doors’
On June 10, as the Aquarius approached Italian waters, the Italian government refused to allow the ship to dock at its ports. The country’s new populist government, which came to power in large part due to the country’s frustration with being the frontline in the migration crisis, used the Aquarius to demonstrate that it was following through on its promise to get tough on illegal immigration. Matteo Salvini, Italy’s new interior minister, took to Twitter to make his government’s position abundantly clear: “Close the doors.”
On June 11, with the Aquarius stranded off the Italian coast, Germany’s struggle over its own immigration policy was intensifying. Merkel rejected Interior Minister Horst Seehofer’s proposal to turn away at the border any refugee who had applied for asylum in another European country. Upon learning of Merkel’s decision, Seehofer canceled a presentation of his 63-point plan to deal with the migration problem scheduled for the following day. A spokeswoman for the German Interior Ministry downplayed the cancellation, explaining that some details simply needed to be ironed out, but she also declined to announce a new date for the presentation.
On June 12, France entered the fray. French President Emmanuel Macron blasted the Italian government as irresponsible and cynical for blocking the Aquarius from Italian ports. The Italian government responded the following day by canceling a meeting in Paris between the French and Italian economy ministers. Italy also summoned the French ambassador and demanded an apology from Macron. Italy’s new prime minister even called Macron’s stance “hypocritical” and decried French self-righteousness over an issue Italy has had to manage with little support from the EU. Meanwhile, the Aquarius set sail for Spain, which granted the ship permission to dock.
On June 13, Seehofer declined to attend a summit in Berlin held by Merkel, and instead met with Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz. Seehofer explained that the move was not a snub but rather had to do with the presence of a journalist who had compared him to the Nazis. But it was Kurz who stole the headlines on this day, as he called for an “axis of the willing against illegal migration” to be formed between Austria, Germany and Italy. Seehofer added that he had spoken to his Italian counterpart the previous day and that they were in “full agreement” over how to secure European borders. None of the men involved seemed concerned about the memories an axis involving Austria, Germany and Italy might dredge up.
Meanwhile, Macron’s government attempted to patch things up with Italy. Macron didn’t issue an apology, but he did call Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and insisted that he didn’t want to offend Italy. In addition, France’s European affairs minister stressed the need for dialogue and directed France’s criticism away from Italy. Instead, the minister blamed Europe for turning its back on Italy and insisted that Europe needed a much better way of dealing with migrants. This appeared to be enough for the Italian government: Conte pledged his solidarity with Europe in dealing with the issue and is scheduled to meet with Macron on June 15.
On June 14, just when it seemed the worst had passed, German media reported that Merkel’s government might collapse. Tension between her Christian Democratic Union party and coalition partner the Christian Social Union, led by Seehofer, has been brewing over Merkel’s immigration policies since 2015. But German newspaper Augsburger Allgemeine, citing multiple CSU sources, reported that Seehofer raised the possibility during a party meeting of defying Merkel, which could split the governing coalition. German papers are now speculating about a potential vote of no confidence should the spat go on.
A Dangerous Bet
To recap, the three largest and most important countries in the European Union – Germany, Italy and France – are now divided, internally and externally. France continues to push for stronger EU reforms and is tired of waiting for Germany to sign up; in fact, France may now see that Germany is too weak to protest and that it must take the lead. Italy’s new government is anxious to follow through on its campaign promises and is both cautious about and intrigued by the shift in power between Europe’s two heavyweights. Germany seems lost – at worst, it’s on the verge of a government collapse, and at best, it’s so inwardly focused that it can hardly play the leadership role it used to. And all this because the migration issue, now three years old, remains unresolved. A single ship with 630 refugees has laid the contradictions bare for all to see.
This, of course, is not the only problem facing Europe today. The United Kingdom, which voted for Brexit in no small degree due to Germany’s lectures on London having to accept its fair share of refugees back in 2015, finds itself in chaos over its next steps. Germany’s foreign minister gave a rousing speech about a “post-Atlantic Europe” and seems more concerned with pushing back against perceived American slights at Germany than at coming to terms with the friction in his own government. The Balkans seems primed for even more disruption, with Russia this week announcing it wants to be more engaged in the region and the Serbian president saying he was warned that NATO would treat any Serbian incursion into Kosovo as a hostile act.
But most important, and buried under the headlines, is the fact that the European Central Bank announced that it will phase out its bond-buying stimulus program by the end of the year – a program that has staunched the bleeding from the 2008 financial crisis but also exacerbated economic inequality throughout the eurozone. In both Europe and the United States, economies are finally returning to normal after a decade of being coddled by policymakers. Now, the training wheels are about to come off, and policymakers are betting that the economic recovery is stable enough to keep going on its own.
That’s a dangerous bet, especially considering that the economic recoveries in Europe and the United States are fragile at best. The U.S. has rarely gone this long without a cyclical recession. But as the Aquarius has shown, Europe has plenty more problems to contend with, even if the optimists are right about the economy. Ironically, at the center of all this is France, the new de facto leader of Europe. Which brings to mind the old maxim: Be careful what you wish for. You just might get it.
The article first appeared on geopoliticalfutures.com