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The Refugee Crisis that first hit Europe in summer 2015 may be three years ago, but its consequences still shape Europe's politics today. In the last few weeks, an increasingly challenging topic for the European Union and its members has hit the headlines again. In Germany, a disagreement about the need for border controls seriously threatens Angela Merkel's authority and could cause her government to collapse. At the same time, right-wing populists governing in Italy and Austria join forces to prevent the arrival of refugees in the first place. Meanwhile, moderates such as Pedro Sánchez of Spain and France's Emmanuel Macron propose other solutions. All these conflicting views will come to a head at a hastily-organised informal EU summit on Sunday 24th June. The outcome will affect the future of the European political project as well as its citizens.
Germany was one of the countries which famously opened its doors to one million refugees in summer 2015. Recently, her decision has come back to haunt Angela Merkel in a disagreement with her interior minister, Horst Seehofer, and members of her Bavarian sister party, the CSU. They insist that any refugees who arrive in Germany but are already registered elsewhere should be sent back to their original recipient country at the German border. Merkel, meanwhile, argues that this strategy is too hardline and calls for a European solution, which supposedly will be agreed at the summit on Sunday 24th June. If no agreement is reached, Seehofer has threatened to act without Merkel's consent, in which case he would probably be dismissed.
Yet an agreement with her partners seems unlikely, in part because of resistance from within the EU. In the last year, right-wing populists have been elected into government in Italy and form part of the coalition government in Austria. These parties, elected on a wave of anti-migration rhetoric, have joined forces with the German Interior Minister, Horst Seehofer, in an 'axis' to oppose Europe's refugee policy. Italy's interior minister, Matteo Salvini, has been particularly radical in sending refugee boats away from Italian ports. The immigration policy of the US President, Donald Trump, particularly his recent policy shift relating to illegal immigrants to the US, has surely also had an influence on the increasing xenophobic tone across Europe. Populist politics uses rhetoric to incite hatred and fear of immigrants, but they present no pragmatic solutions to the challenges that Europe faces.
This accusation cannot be made about two other figures, one of whom has been labelled the 'saviour of Europe': Emmanuel Macron and the new Prime Minister of Spain, Pedro Sanchez. The two leaders met in Paris today and, as expected, the refugee crisis dominated. But in stark contrast to some of their European counterparts, the two presented a firm but potentially pragmatic solution. Where Italy refused to accept boats of migrants, Sanchez acted swiftly to offer them an alternative arrival point in the port of Valencia. Spain, as the other members of Europe, should respect human rights in reference to immigration and come together in solidarity, Sánchez said at a joint press conference with Emmanuel Macron on Saturday. Sánchez and Macron also offered a solution which would involve migrant centres on European soil rather than in Africa, as others have suggested. Offering assistance, rather than closing borders, is a more pragmatic solution to a challenging situation.
Clearly Europe is split over the consequences of the biggest refugee crisis it has experienced since the Second World War. It is unlikely that this crisis will be resolved at the full European Council meeting at the end of this week. But clearly European unity is vital, now more than ever.