To read some accounts of relations between the UK and the EU, you would imagine that the two are in complete and stark contrast: chaotic, divided Westminster and orderly, unified Brussels. Even most Conservatives would concede former may contain some truth – we have a minority government, within whose ranks are contained various disagreements, as well as an Opposition more radically opposed to, well, everything than for many years. But the latter is a fascinating myth – a creation largely of those who want to believe it to be so, combined with the general disinterest among the British press and public in the details of politics on the Continent.
The reality is that the EU is currently riven by a deeper and wider gulf than most in this country realise. Not over the Euro, which while still troubled and troubling (not least to those put out of work by its effects) has been relegated to a second-order source of friction, but by immigration.
The issue is driving some governments, such as Poland and Hungary, and annoying others, such as France. It played a not insignificant role in the near-destruction of Italy’s established political parties a couple of months ago, to the horror of Brussels, and now Angela Merkel finds her own government threatened by it, with the Bavarian CSU responding to pressure from the AfD by insisting that she toughen up. James Forsyth argued on Saturday that migration has eclipsed Brexit as the dominant topic occupying minds and time at the top of the EU tree, and yesterday the Member States assembled for what was deemed a ‘mini-summit’ to try to address it.
The event did not bring good news for Merkel, who had hoped to secure some kind of agreement that she could use as a sticking plaster for her rickety domestic coalition. Instead, she ended up having to practically beg the Italian Prime Minister to attend at all – eventually being compelled to concede in advance that the summit would result in no action, as “a consultation and working meeting at which there will be no concluding statement”. What was meant to be her lifeline was thereby downgraded to a discussion of the concept of lines, which might perhaps be useful to someone who required one to save their life, hypothetically.
Worse, while Merkel still has no agreement to salve the concerns of her allies, some Member States are now led by people who see benefit in fighting more and agreeing less. Matteo Salvini, the Lega leader who now runs Italy’s Interior Ministry, is making a very public virtue of turning away ships full of migrants from Libya, and plucked from the Mediterranean – fulfilling a pledge that helped propel him to power. On Friday, Emmanuel Macron played to his own base by attacking Salvini and others like him as carriers of “populist leprosy”. That in turn prompted the Italian Deputy Prime Minister, a representative of Five Star, the Lega’s new coalition partners, to accuse Macron of “hypocrisy” for turning away migrants at the Franco-Italian border, while Salvini chimed in that the French President “drinks too much champagne” and “should give us the number of his port authority and the next 10 migrant boats can go to Marseilles”.
As Wolfgang Munchau wrote over the weekend, this represents a dangerous shift in Rome’s stance towards its fellow EU members. While Italy was in the past ‘ready to accept legislation that was manifestly against the country’s interest’, in order to stay in with the rest of the EU, now it has a government which explicitly makes a virtue of standing up to them – not merely fighting when it has to, but picking fights where it can. Upsetting Macron, and forcing Merkel to come begging for Italy’s co-operation, aren’t simply by-products of their strategy, they are beneficial outcomes as far as Five Star and the Lega are concerned. It’s not a million miles away from Donald Trump knowing that when he outrages polite society in New York or California, that in itself stands as evidence to his base that he must be doing something right. Those who disapprove of it might call it vice signalling; those who agree with it call it honouring campaign promises.
For the EU establishment – Merkel, Macron, the institutions and the Brussels class around them – this is a trying and scary topic. The worse news (for them, at least) is that it shows no sign of going away.