MILAN (Reuters Breakingviews) - Immigration has once again become the European Union’s top political challenge. Though fewer people are arriving from Africa and elsewhere than a few years ago, the issue will be central when EU leaders meet next week. A unified approach could help prevent a repeat of the crisis of 2015. The danger is that anti-immigrant sentiment pushes countries like Germany and Italy towards ineffective piecemeal solutions.
The radical new Italian government has pushed the issue back up the EU’s agenda. Matteo Salvini, the country’s hard-right interior minister, refused to allow a migrant rescue ship to dock, opening a diplomatic rift with European neighbours. Meanwhile a proposal by his German counterpart, Horst Seehofer, to turn back migrants registered in other EU countries has led to a showdown with Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Italy’s proximity to North Africa puts it – along with Greece – on the front line. But citizens in 21 EU states see immigration as the bloc’s biggest concern, up from 14 in November, according to Eurobarometer data published in March. This is despite an immigration slowdown: the number of people seeking asylum in the bloc dropped 44 percent to 730,000 in 2017, and by a further 15 percent in the first quarter of 2018. Yet EU countries are still considering nearly 1 million requests for protection, mostly in Germany and Italy.
Finding a unified approach will be a struggle. Some EU member states, especially in Eastern Europe, would prefer to leave the matter to countries where immigrants first arrive, as current rules require. Hungary and Austria have built barriers along national borders.
This approach is shortsighted. Individual states are poorly equipped to cope with an influx of immigrants fleeing war and poor economic conditions at home. Besides, patrolling internal frontiers is less efficient than pooling resources to boost the EU’s common border police force.
Striking deals with third countries to house and process refugees, as the EU did with Turkey in 2015, might also work. Italy has proposed that the EU set up and run asylum-screening centres in transit countries like Libya or Niger in return for money.
Immigration is a complex and multi-faceted problem. That is why it requires a joint approach. Do-it-yourself solutions can only be a temporary fix.
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