BY PAUL TAYLOR
The European flag is projected on the government building in Tbilisi, Georgia, December 18, 2015.
It’s little wonder the European Union can’t find common solutions to Europe’s urgent problems when
its main members are having such different national conversations.
Like the biblical Tower of Babel, Europe’s ambitious construction is in danger of toppling because
its peoples are not speaking the same political language.
Tune in to Germany and the fierce debate is all about how to cope with an influx of a million
migrants, whether to limit the numbers and, in some quarters, how to stop them coming.
Switch to France and you’re listening to a nation that thinks it is at war, still living under a
state of emergency and in shock after last November’s attacks by Islamist militants that killed
130 people in Paris.
Flip to Britain and the talk is all of national sovereignty and a possible Brexit in the build-up
to a June referendum that might end the country’s schizophrenic membership of the EU.
Look east to Poland and people are arguing over the new government’s moves to curb the media and
the constitutional court, over who may have been a Communist informer 40 years ago, and over the
perceived Russian threat to eastern Europe today.
Around central Europe the discussion is about how to resist German pressure to take in a share of
Turn south and the Italians and Portuguese are engrossed in domestically focused debates about how
to revive economic growth despite the EU’s budgetary corset while cleaning up legacy bank problems.
Spain meanwhile is preoccupied by Catalan separatism, political paralysis and the risk of a breakup
of the country.
When those countries’ leaders come to Brussels, they often cannot even agree what they should be
For the last two EU summits, Britain wanted the focus to be on its demands for a renegotiation of
its membership terms to give Prime Minister David Cameron a “new settlement” he can sell in a June
23 referendum on whether to stay in the bloc.
He secured a deal on Feb. 19, but many fellow leaders were frustrated at having to spend time on
what they see as side issues and rhetorical formulations when their house is on fire.
“Everyone in the room and corridors was rather irritated that here we are dealing with some rather
obscure issues of child benefits indexation, while we have real problems in Syria, member states
closing borders, major issues we should really be on instead of this,” a diplomat involved in the
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, fighting for her political life against domestic critics of her
open door for refugees, wanted the EU to concentrate on urgent measures to secure Europe’s external
borders, register migrants, send home rejected asylum seekers and share out refugees among EU
Desperate to find a common “European solution” to the migration crisis, she has forced yet another
European summit on March 7 with Turkey, days before three German regional elections in which
anti-immigration rightists could make big gains.
French President Francois Hollande, for his part, goes to Brussels seeking more cooperation against
terrorism and support for military action against Islamic State in Syria and Libya.
His prime minister, Manuel Valls, irked German officials by using a trip to the Munich Security
Conference to criticize Merkel’s welcome for refugees and declare that Europe could not take any
Unlike many past European crises, where disagreements could be postponed or salami- sliced into
gradual steps that turned a political dispute into a technocratic process, there is no obvious way
to delay or defuse the migration issue.
Events on the ground are moving faster than the EU’s ability to manage them. Governments along the
main Western Balkans migration route, under pressure from populist forces, are resorting to
Austria, a key transit country, unilaterally imposed daily caps on migrant entries and asylum
applications in mid-February.
In a sign of the waning authority of Brussels and Berlin, Austria brought together 10 central
European and Balkan states last week – meeting without Germany, the EU authorities or Greece, the
main arrival point for migrants – to coordinate national measures to choke off the northward flow
As boatloads of migrants defy winter seas daily to cross from Turkey, that lockdown is rapidly
turning Greece, the EU’s most economically enfeebled state, into a giant refugee camp.
Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has warned his country will not become “a warehouse of souls” and
said he will hold up other European business if Athens’ partners do not share the burden.
EU countries have largely ignored the quotas of refugees they agreed last year to take in, and
Hungary is now planning a referendum on whether it should have to accept any.
Britain and France are keeping their heads down rather than helping Merkel, Europe’s most
experienced and respected leader.
Cameron won’t take any refugees already in Europe for fear that public hostility to migration
could cost him the referendum. Hollande too fears fuelling support for far-right populist Marine Le
Pen if he offers Berlin more assistance.
Barring an improbable halt to arrivals from Turkey in the coming weeks, the most likely next step
is that Europe’s 26-nation Schengen zone of passport-free travel will be officially suspended for
two years to pre-empt a disorderly collapse.
A major achievement of EU cooperation on a continent scarred for centuries by wars will be put into
an induced coma to prevent it dying immediately. The result will likely be long lines at borders
that had all but disappeared two decades ago.
At that point, Germany, with or without Merkel, will probably have to impose its own curbs on
While Europe’s weak and divided leaders remain distracted by internal debates, the union that
provided the framework for post-World War Two prosperity will start to unravel.
(Editing by Hugh Lawson)