Forget Brexit or a looming trans-Atlantic trade war. The diplomatic spat last week between Italy, Malta and France over who should take responsibility for more than 600 people rescued at sea shows that the biggest challenge Europe faces today is migration.
It’s not about the hundreds of thousands of people who arrived across the Mediterranean in recent years seeking better or safer lives. The crisis threatening the very existence of the European Union is the enemy within: the inability of individual states to manage those migrant arrivals collectively.
The questions of who should take responsibility for those arriving – and whether there should be a quota system for European countries to share refugees – are fiercely disputed.
Long-suffering EU nations such as Italy and Greece, where most sea migrants enter, feel abandoned by other EU nations.
In response, some European countries have deployed troops, erected border fences or temporarily reintroduced ID checks, undermining Europe’s wide-ranging passport-free travel area. Others have welcomed the migrants in.
Those acting alone have mostly angered their neighbours by passing the problem on. Anti-migrant parties have exploited the chaos, winning votes as they foment fear of foreigners.
“As long as we keep refusing the idea that we have a collective problem that can only be tackled with collective solutions we will not find a solution,” European Commission vice-president Frans Timmermans warned. EU nations are now struggling to reform the bloc’s asylum rules that states migrants must seek protection in the first European country they arrive in.
That rule was part of this week’s dispute over the Aquarius, a rescue ship carrying 629 people saved off the Libyan coast.
Italy, which controls Mediterranean rescue operations, halted the in-bound ship, claiming that the small EU island of Malta was closer and should take responsibility. French President Emmanuel Macron waded in, accusing Italy of cynical, irresponsible behaviour. Spain came to the rescue, offering the boat safe harbour in Valencia.