BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Deals on migration agreed in the European Union and Germany may end up more about rhetoric than reality but they indicate a shift towards a “Fortress Europe” way of thinking that could pose the bloc’s biggest existential threat yet.
The deal in Germany to process migrants in police facilities within 48 hours on its southern border with Austria followed an agreement reached the previous Friday in Brussels to try to review asylum requests in camps around the Mediterranean, including Africa, and share responsibility for migrants rescued at sea.
Critics immediately slammed the two pacts as unworkable and possibly against EU law on the right to seek asylum. Most north African countries have already refused to host such sites because of potential security risks, among other things.
To make the German plan work, Berlin will need to secure bilateral agreements with the EU states where migrants first applied for asylum to take them back if necessary. Berlin says 14 countries have agreed to start negotiations but pacts will be difficult to agree with those it needs most, Italy and Austria, where the governments hold a tough anti-immigration line.
Austria has said it may be forced in turn to protect its own southern borders, such as those it shares with Italy and Slovenia, to stop migrants transiting from the south.
With Italy and Malta both denying entry to rescue ships in recent days, pushing the vessels to Spain, rights groups say Europe is on its way to ceding its right to claim leadership on humanitarian issues rooted in its own World War Two experience.
“I am worried that international humanitarian law is increasingly being treated as an annoyance,” Eugenio Ambrosi, the EU envoy for U.N. migration agency IOM, told Reuters.
“One would think that the experience of the first half of the 20th century should have taught us all a lesson.”
EU diplomats and officials worry that member states are fighting and even hardening their positions just as they need to be unified to face Britain’s departure from the union next year and tensions with U.S. President Donald Trump and Russia.
Migration is playing an oversized role in European domestic politics, too. A showdown between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her conservative southern partner threatened to topple her coalition government though she appears safe for now.
“It is my deep conviction that the migration question decides whether Europe will last,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel told the German parliament last week.
A big part of the problem is that the EU has failed to distribute evenly among its population of 500 million what U.N. data shows is fewer than 2 million new arrivals since 2014, partly because countries like Poland and Hungary refuse to take part.
That has exacerbated disproportionate pressure on southern countries like Greece or Italy. Three years later, the problem has still not been resolved.
“We used to be in the business of helping each other out,” said one senior EU diplomat who asked not to be named because his comments differed from his government’s official line. “But the spirit of consensus is gone. Everyone is going it alone.”
The issue is coming to a head just as migration numbers to Europe are actually tailing off.
Only about 46,100 refugees and migrants have made the dangerous sea crossing so far this year, U.N. data shows, nowhere near the more than a million arrivals in 2015.
The 1,480 people who have perished in the sea this year compares to some 3,700 deaths recorded for the whole of 2015.
In fact the agreement made in Brussels may be worth less than the paper it is written on, EU diplomats and officials say.
“For all the talk of the harsh new measures, most of it is either more of what we have been doing for the last three years, or very difficult and time-consuming to do, like significantly raising the number of people we sent back, or contradictory,” said one EU diplomat, who asked not to be named because he was not authorised to speak about the matter publicly.
Meanwhile the political mood in Europe is increasingly turning against migrants.
Italian new Interior Minister Matteo Salvini’s use of the hashtag #stoptheinvasion on Twitter would have been considered beyond the pale for a member of a serving EU government just a few years ago.
In 2015, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban was widely criticised for contravening EU laws when he built a fence on his southern border.
But now his other idea - presented back in 2016 as “Africa hotspots” where the EU would handle all refugees and migrants in Africa before bringing over only those who win asylum - is back in the latest EU agreement, with only some revisions.
One thing EU leaders have succeeded in doing so far is preventing the collapse of the cherished Schengen travel zone that feeds jobs and businesses across the bloc by guaranteeing control-free movement of people and goods.
The threat to Schengen is real, however, as several countries including Austria, Germany and France have already introduced some emergency border checks since 2015.
The current discussions about the German-Austrian border - and Vienna’s threat to restrict its own border - shows how easily one country’s move could trigger a chain reaction.
Physically re-erecting dividing lines inside Europe could deal a mortal blow to what backers praise as the most successful peace project in Europe since World War Two, coming after the wounds caused by Britain’s vote to leave.
“If Schengen falls apart, this is it. There will no longer be an EU as we have known it,” said an EU official.
Additional reporting by Steve Scherer in Rome; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall