In March, we’ll know whether the E.U. will still exist, at as we know it, or whether it will collapse under blows inflicted by national interests, European leaders say.
European Council President Donald Tusk re-issued the prediction yesterday at European Parliament in Strasbourg. “We have no more than two months to get things under control,” he said. “The March European Council will be the last moment to see if our strategy works. If it doesn’t we will face grave consequences, such as the collapse of Schengen.”
Behind Tusk’s words is the decision, from an increasing number of countries, to re-introduce border checkpoints, including Germany, Sweden and Denmark. Last Saturday, Austria said it would increase controls, and Slovenia and Croatia are poised to follow suit. One after another is marking the end of the free flow of people and goods, which until now had been the foundation and pride of the European Union — now brought to its knees by a refugee crisis and the cry from many capitals not to accept them.
“The European Union is under threat at the base and may not realize it,” said European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, suggesting that border controls are only the beginning of vast economic consequences. “Today we reintroduce border controls, tomorrow we will see that this has a considerable economic cost and later we will ask ourselves why a single currency if there is no freedom of movement.”
This is not the first time Juncker has invoked dire fiscal warnings. Never, though, has the situation been more serious. Eastern countries — staunch Euro defenders in years past — are now instead choosing to block their roads. It signals a crisis that perhaps goes beyond the immediate migrant emergency.
The facts prove this isn’t just the E.U. leadership crying wolf. For months, Brussels has pushed for states to accept their share of refugees. Now the Austrian government has introduced measures to reduce its quotas for the sake of border security. The measures are designed to “make Austria less attractive” for refugees, the conservative Finance Minister Hans Joerg Schelling said.
Yesterday in Prague, ministers from Slovakia, Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic met to reiterate their opposition to the mandatory quota system for refugee distribution proposed by the European Commission. Ministers from Slovenia, Serbia and Macedonia also attended, and made a pact to cooperate on border controls in the Western Balkans.
Confronted with an inability to manage migration, and terrified of what may happen in the spring when good weather encourages a new exodus from Syria, the European Union is reviving its old strategy: strengthening controls along external borders. Translated, that means investing money, personnel and equipment not to save asylum seekers but to prevent them from leaving. And it means Brussels leaning heavily on Turkey, pushing the buffer state to keep people out.
They say so openly. “Ankara is the key to stopping migrants,” said German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier. Berlin has also criticized Italy for its objections to the decision in November to send €3 billion of E.U. funds to Ankara.
While Europe argues, its borders are consumed by daily tragedies, exacerbated by bitter cold. UNICEF has warned about the safety of thousands of children arriving in southeastern Europe. One in three refugees in the Balkans is a minor, the agency says. They’re exhausted, fearful, stressed and in need of medical care, adequate clothing and food.