Europe is in the process of regaining its self-confidence. The Austrians, Dutch and French resisted the seductions of separation and nationalism in recent elections – in contrast to the British and Americans. Citizens are taking new pleasure in the European Union, and French president Emmanuel Macron is injecting new energy into a once timid community of states.
But vitality and optimism are tender plants that can quickly be trampled if the number of refugees fleeing toward Europe across the Mediterranean rises once again. Brexit and Donald Trump may have inadvertently soldered the EU states back together, but it remains to be seen whether the recent rise in popular solidarity can triumph over the nationalist tendencies when push comes to shove. The pressure exerted by hundreds of thousands of refugees in the fall of 2015 showed that no other issue is so capable of dividing the European Union as much as refugee policy. The EU must not allow itself to be as helpless and divided as it was two years ago.
The current situation in Italy cannot yet be compared to the Balkans in 2015. While over the past six months the number of new arrivals increased by around 20 percent to 83,650, few have begun heading north. It is therefore all the more alarming when Austrian government representatives, seeing a spike in the numbers within a single weekend, go on tirades about closing the border at the Brenner Pass, and deploying soldiers to then do so. In the hope of becoming chancellor after the parliamentary elections in October, the country’s conservative foreign minister, Sebastian Kurz, has been especially vocal about his anti-refugee policy. To reach his goal he has even hinted he would sacrifice cooperation with neighboring EU countries.