fighting back

EU leaders agree immigration deal, easing tensions at home

German Chancellor Merkel leaves a European Union leaders summit in Brussels
What winning looks like. Source: Reuters

An all-night summit yielded an EU-wide immigration agreement designed to present a unified face to refugees and appease riled constituents in several European countries. The plan establishes two kinds of refugee camps: ones outside Europe, ostensibly to return and discourage unwanted refugees, and others inside Europe to better organize asylum applications.

“We are satisfied,” Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said following the meeting. “It was a long negotiation but from today, Italy is no longer alone.” European politicians have been under pressure from voters to repel refugees who would not qualify for asylum. At the same time, the EU’s border countries have looked outside the union for help in accepting those who do.

Under an apparently key part of the plan, the EU will check whether refugee camps can be set up in North Africa, so fewer migrants make the illegal and often perilous journey across the Mediterranean. So far, however, the region’s countries have rejected the idea. German Chancellor Angela Merkel asserts that the camps would work with UN refugee agency UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration in accordance with international law.

“I emphasized what we’ve said before: We want to work with Africa as partners,” Ms. Merkel said after the deal.

Registration, please

Tensions have been running especially high in Germany, where the migrant issue threatened to break apart the governing coalition. Interior Minister Horst Seehofer has threatened to act alone and turn back refugees who didn’t have permission to enter Germany, or who had registered in a different European country. Chancellor Merkel had called for patience and said she preferred the kind of European solution she got Friday over a unilateral move by Germany and Mr. Seehofer.

Still, Ms. Merkel appeared to have made some concessions to Mr. Seehofer, of the CSU, a coalition partner and Bavarian sister party to the chancellor’s CDU. “We realized that here we must also ensure order and guidance,” she said after the marathon meeting. “No asylum applicant has the right to choose the country within the EU where the asylum process will occur.”

The summit breakthrough followed an animated speech by the chancellor on Thursday in the Bundestag, Germany’s lower house of parliament. Shortly before leaving for the summit in Brussels, Ms. Merkel abandoned her usual monotone delivery and, gesturing often with a clenched fist, showed unusual passion in declaring migration a “make or break” issue for Europe. “Europe has many challenges,” she said, “but that of migration could become one that determines the fate of the European Union.”

She will now meet on Sunday with Interior Minister Seehofer to resolve their disagreement on immigration. Ms. Merkel appears to have been part of an EU agreement that could prevent Mr. Seehofer from using his ministerial powers to enact his immigration policies without the backing of Berlin. Ms. Merkel has warned that she would then fire him, likely ending the current coalition.

Populist push

Mr. Seehofer was not present during Ms. Merkel’s peroration. And his party colleague Alexander Dobrindt was uncharacteristically restrained in his response, urging a unified Europe. “Germany is our fatherland, and Europe the present and the future,” he said.

Asylum applications are organized according to the Dublin agreement, named after the city where it was signed, and it does, in fact, allow countries to turn back refugees who are registered in another country when they first arrive, as Mr. Seehofer wants. The problem is that refugees are arriving mostly in the southern EU countries and many other members are resisting a scheme to distribute them throughout the bloc.

The German government has worked hard to reduce the number of asylum seekers after Ms. Merkel opened a can of worms in 2015 by declaring Germany open to an unlimited number of refugees. The backlash in Germany and Europe has led to the rise of nationalist and populist parties who are opposed to immigration. This is the nub of Mr. Seehofer’s problem, because the far right Alternative for Germany poses a serious threat to the CSU to keep its majority in state elections this fall.

But is also a problem in Italy, which has just installed a populist coalition, and in several East European countries, where right-wing nationalist governments prevail. Italy was blamed for postponement late Thursday of a press conference to announce some conclusions from the EU summit. Rome didn’t feel enough was being done to alleviate their situation on the front line of immigration, according to reports from Brussels.

Several Handelsblatt reporters contributed to this report. Andrew Bulkeley is an editor with Handelsblatt Global in Berlin and Darrell Delamaide is a writer and editor for Handelsblatt Global in Washington, DC. To contact the authors: and


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