In Stratfor's 2018 Annual Forecast, we noted that migration would be one of the main political issues in the European Union in 2018. The rise of nationalist and anti-immigration parties increases the likelihood that European countries will make unilateral moves to manage migrant populations, threatening the continuity of bloc-wide rules and agreements.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel's government coalition has been unsteady over the past few weeks due to internal disputes about migration. But on July 5, the coalition avoided collapse when its members — Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU); its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU); and the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) — agreed on a package of measures to reduce the number of migrants entering Germany. While the deal will temporarily end frictions within Merkel's government, it still requires cooperation from other countries, most notably Italy and Austria. And depending on the way the talks among Berlin, Vienna and Rome develop, the very future of the Schengen Agreement, which in 1995 eliminated border controls in Europe, could be at risk.
Under the new German agreement, asylum seekers and economic migrants entering the country would be sent to "transit centers" along the German border. Those who do not qualify for asylum or have already applied for asylum in another EU member state would be sent back to the country where they first entered the European Union. The CSU had initially suggested the unilateral expulsion of migrants at the border. But Merkel feared that such a policy could trigger a domino effect in Europe, with other countries also closing their own borders. The parties ultimately decided on a softer approach in which Germany will not act unilaterally and will make agreements with other countries about the transfer of migrants.
Though the plan has the support of the German government, it also requires cooperation from the countries on the European Union's external borders. Greece and Spain, two important entry points along the Mediterranean Sea, have promised Germany that they will take back some migrants, but Italy will be harder to convince. The government in Rome includes the anti-immigration League party, which wants the European Union to scrap the so-called Dublin system, which establishes that the country where migrants first enter the European Union is responsible for them.
Interior ministers from the 28 EU countries will meet in Innsbruck, Austria, on July 12 and 13 to discuss these issues, and Germany, Austria and Italy will hold a trilateral meeting on the sidelines of that event. Austria is a key transit country for migrants moving along both the Balkan route (which connects Greece with Germany) and the Central Mediterranean route (which connects Italy with Germany).
Austrian officials have threatened to introduce border controls, including at the Brenner mountain pass connecting Italy with Austria, if Germany does the same. The introduction of controls in Germany, Austria and other countries could slow down the movement of goods and people across borders, affecting businesses. Italian officials, meanwhile, have threatened to permanently close the country's ports to ships carrying migrants in an attempt to pressure other EU countries to take more migrants. Rome is demanding that the European Union better protect its external borders, fight harder against human trafficking organizations and grant more resources to Libya, one of the main departure points for migrants. And even if it gets all of that, Italy may still be reluctant to receive migrants expelled from Germany.
These disputes highlight the extent to which immigration continues to dominate European politics, even if the arrival of people by sea has decreased by more than 80 percent since the peak of the crisis in 2015. In Germany, the conservatives are under pressure from the far right to come up with tougher migration policies. In Austria and Italy, anti-immigration parties are already members of coalition governments. Migration is also a sensitive issue in countries ranging from Poland in the east to France in the west, undermining any attempts to come up with broadly supported policies.
One of the main threats connected to the rise of nationalist parties is that it increases the chances of governments making unilateral moves, which would threaten the continuity of multilateral agreements on the Continent. Indeed, if several European countries begin introducing controls to avoid taking immigrants, the Schengen Agreement, which ensures open borders within the European Union, would be one of the first casualties.