Breakingviews - EU immigration deal papers over two big problems

German Chancellor Angela Merkel leaves a European Union leaders summit in Brussels, Belgium, June 29, 2018. REUTERS/Eric Vidal

LONDON (Reuters Breakingviews) - The European Union’s fudge-making skills have failed to hide the flaws in its recipe. After haggling all night, leaders on Friday struck a deal on migration which managed to satisfy Italy’s new government while giving German Chancellor Angela Merkel something that may placate her conservative Bavarian allies. But the former’s confrontational stance and the domestic weakness of the latter remain worrying fault lines.

EU leaders agreed to share responsibility for migrants rescued at sea, a key demand of Italy’s new Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, and to strengthen the bloc’s external borders. The countries will also share out refugees arriving in the union, albeit on a voluntary basis. Securing even this much was an achievement even though the EU border agency’s figures show that the total number of irregular border crossings in the first five months of the year fell 46 percent from a year earlier. Italian politicians argue that the rest of the EU has failed to help the Mediterranean country cope with migrants landing on its shores. Merkel faces pressure from her long-standing ally, the Christian Social Union, which wants to stop migrants registered in other EU countries from crossing the German border. And the likes of Hungary are adamant they will not be dragooned into accepting migrants.

A paucity of details and vague language helped paper over the differences and preserve the principle that the EU should tackle the problem collectively. Nonetheless, the deal failed to mask a couple of big problems. The first is that Merkel is so weak domestically that her coalition government might have collapsed if she had failed to secure concessions. Hence the jump in the euro’s value against other major currencies once the deal was secured. The second is that the Italian government is prepared to take an obstinate stance. This was clear when Conte refused on Thursday to endorse what EU leaders had to say on security and trade until others agreed to help manage the influx of migrants.

These weaknesses will be further exposed when the EU faces other contentious issues. Merkel may have less scope to offer compromises that might irk hardliners in her own party or the CSU on issues such as how to strengthen the euro zone. The Italian government, meanwhile, might decide to be equally demanding about securing leeway to increase its budget deficit. As neither is an immediate risk, leaders can for now bask in the glow of a hard-won deal. But the fractures are bound to be exposed again at future all-night EU meetings.


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