15 February 2016

Merkel increasingly isolated in Europe?

This week’s two day summit on the EU-UK’s negotiations may see some leaders struggling to focus their minds.

The leaders of the Visegrad Group will be present, representing Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, and significantly, they are now joined at the summit by Bulgaria and Macedonia. As a lobby, they are fronting an increasingly hard line opposition to Merkel’s solution for the migration crisis. David Cameron will find them a vociferous backdrop to discussion of his handling of the British referendum (or Brexit).

Merkel, having brought about this human disaster, had hoped to solve it by distributing asylum seekers around Europe according to a quota system. She had also hoped to seal the flow of refugees across the Aegean by doing a deal with Turkey. To that end, a German naval presence is already assisting Greek and Turkish forces in trying to deal with people smugglers.

The i mplacability of the Visegrad Group is reflected by the fact that only 497 of the 160,000 migrants intended to be “distributed” have in reality been moved to date. Turkey has not reacted materially either, judging by the January migration figures being ten times that of the previous period in 2015. President Erdogan, whose negotiations have to date seen reparation of €3 billion promised, is clearly hoping that financially this will prove to be the first instalment.

The Visegrad Group was founded twenty five years ago. It has never been analogous to the Benelux although operationally, the degree of coordination is now politically similar. The four Visegrad members share certain qualities of outlook, namely that they are nativist and protectionist in outlook, lacking our colonial history of immigration. Loosely they exhibit a degree of anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism, as has been widely levelled at Hungary’s Orban, and Russia is still admired as well. One has to accept that calling these regimes far right in Western terms is meaningless. These are under-invested states that naturally resist being the focus and corridor for mass migration. Most importantly, the inclusion of Macedonia here is significant. Macedonia has only just settled a long running dispute with Greece over its nomenclature.

Although it became independent in 1991, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia only comprises around one third of the historic landmass of Macedonia. However, the Visegrad Group have no faith in Greece’s ability to stem the migrant flow and so are looking for the Macedonian border to be strengthened. This has even involved Czeck and Slovakian interests seconding their border guards. Notably, Austria has reduced its acceptance of migrant flow down to 37,500 asylum seekers this year, down from 90,000 in 2015. Slovakian support for increasing Macedonia’s borders has been heightened as the ruling party of Prime Minis ter Fico faces election in a month’s time.

Merkel is increasingly isolated in Europe with both sides of her ruling coalition cutting up rough about her handling of the migrant crisis. There are now open debates as to how draconian the integration of migrants needs to be, as well as open discussion of suspending Greece “temporarily” from its Schengen membership. This latter move has been called for by the Economic Council of her own party.

With polls this weekend in the Sunday press indicating an increasing early ground swell towards Brexit, David Cameron will be as supportive as he can be towards Merkel in her various manoeuvrings, given he still has much to negotiate if we are to remain. However, the vicissitudes of the European migration crisis will make it an increasingly hard backdrop against which to get heard for our Prime Minister.

Popular opinion in several political theatres is increasingly anti-establishment and there seems to be an increasing tendency for social media channels to amplify basic grievances. Income inequality, amplified by Western zero interest rate policies, may well be an important social dynamic operating here. We are seeing this in the US with Donald Trump’s soundbites increasingly appealing to impoverished, white, middle class Americans and the possible rejection of the Wall Street-funded Hillary Clinton in favour of an old school socialist in Bernie Sanders. David Cameron may increasingly find that the anti-establishment forces, such as elevated the improbable Jeremy Corbyn to be leader of the Labour party, are equally fickle in the sentiment voters express towards Brexit and the domestic immigration question. Faced with the background of pressure from the Visegrad Group, David Cameron will have to work hard to keep his case at the front of this coming summit’s attention.

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