What's Going on in Brussels?

Migration is dividing the European Union

By Preston Huennekens on October 4, 2018

The European Union began in 1952 as the European Coal and Steel Community. The original six countries — Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, West Germany, and Italy — eventually grew to 28 by 2015. Negotiations continue with outsiders that could see the group's total membership rise to over 30 by 2020. Some commentators point to the E.U. as a superpower.

Well-intentioned visionaries believed that increased European integration and supranational cooperation would bring prosperity, peace, and progress to the continent, which was left destroyed by the horrors of World War II. Today, however, the E.U. seems to be at an impasse. A variety of issues challenge it, but migration has remained the persistent one driving the debate in Brussels.

The migration problem has fractured the E.U. in ways that even the 2008 financial collapse did not. Blocs have formed in the European parliament between countries wary of continued migration and those adamant that the E.U. has a moral obligation to help those fleeing war and violence from the Middle East and northern Africa. Between 2015 and 2017, nearly 3.3 million people applied for asylum within the European Union.

Two E.U. agreements are important to understand in the context of the current European migrant crisis. The first is the Schengen agreement, which allows "any person, irrespective of nationality, [to] cross the internal borders without being subjected to border checks" in 26 member states. Hypothetically, once migrants have crossed into any of the perimeter E.U. countries they are free to move freely throughout the rest of the Schengen area and perhaps settle somewhere further north or west.

The second is the Dublin Regulation, which stipulates that asylum claims must be processed in the first E.U. country an asylum-seeker arrives in. This places a greater burden on countries such as Greece and Italy, which, as a result of their geography, are generally the first countries to encounter migrants from the Middle East and Africa.

The migrant crisis challenged the E.U.'s strategies for regulating migrant flows beginning in 2015, following the massive displacement of people from the Syrian Civil War (2011-present). The countries that took in the most migrants have demanded change from Brussels, and anti-migrant sentiment has led to the rise of new political movements challenging the traditional parties.

While many countries have faced domestic backlash as a result of the 2015 crisis, the following members have stood out for their high-profile reactions to the migration issue.


Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his Fidesz party have made immigration a key focus of their criticism against the E.U. Orban served as the prime minister previously, from 1998-2002. The right-wing populist Fidesz dominates Hungarian politics and has done so since Orban was elected for a second time as prime minister in 2010. Fidesz has held a supermajority in parliament since that election.

In 2015, Hungary erected a fence on its southern border with Serbia in an attempt to keep migrants traversing the Balkan route into Europe from entering the country. In 2017, Hungary faced widespread criticism from other E.U. countries when it announced a policy of detaining all illegal migrants until their status could be determined.

This resulted in a vote (448-197) by the European parliament to begin sanctions proceedings against Hungary for "breaching European values". Hungarian politicians were — unsurprisingly — outraged. Orban told the parliament in a floor speech that "Hungary is going to be condemned because the Hungarian people have decided that this country is not going to be a country of migrants. Hungary will not accede to this blackmailing. Hungary will protect its borders, stop illegal migration and if needed we will stand up to you." Hungary's foreign minister Peter Szijjarto remarked that the vote represented the "petty revenge of pro-immigration politicians" within the European parliament.

The Visegrad Group

The Visegrad group includes the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, and Poland, uniting the countries' shared history of communism behind the iron curtain during the Cold War. The Visegrad Group countries entered the European Union simultaneously during the 2004 expansion.

In June 2018, the Visegrad Group (in cooperation with Austria) released a statement affirming the group's united commitment to stopping illegal migration. Titled "Setting up a Mechanism for Assistance in Protecting the Borders of the Western Balkan Countries", the document commits these countries to curtail continued migration flows into Europe. It ends by stating that "we can achieve positive results at [the] European level by our joint efforts made through the effective cooperation of the Visegrad Group and Austria." That same month, the members (and Austria) refused to participate in an E.U. mini-summit on migration.

The Visegrad Group remains a stalwart advocate for less migration to the E.U. and for greater sovereignty in the relocation of asylum-seekers. Reflecting their focus on the issue of migration, the 2017/2018 annual report of the Visegrad Group listed "refocusing the migration-related EU discourse on security & border control" as one of its main achievements.

Notably, Czech Republic Prime Minister Andrej Babiš has repeatedly called for a solution to the migrant crisis, charging that Europe has sent a message abroad of being "open and that we have to care for everyone who comes illegally and will disperse them amongst us." In the same speech, Babiš suggested that NATO be used to police the borders of the E.U.


At the height of the 2015 migrant crisis, Sweden's government agreed to take in nearly 160,000 asylum-seekers in one year, the most per-capita in Europe. Then-Prime Minister Stefan Lofven of the center-left Social Democrats said that "My Europe doesn't put up walls, we hold a hand out when the situation demands it." The foreign-born share of the population grew to over 17 percent and Sweden was seen as the leader of resettlement in Europe in contrast to countries like Hungary.

The Sweden Democrats, a previously ostracized fringe party, campaigned heavily on a message that included stopping immigration and challenging the E.U. on its commitment to relocate hundreds of thousands of asylum-seekers within the E.U.

Utilizing this messaging, the Sweden Democrats won 17.6 percent of the vote in the 2018 general elections and saw the biggest gains of any political party in the country. Their growth has challenged the usually dominant Social Democrats, who have led every election since 1917. The mainstream center-right party, the Moderates, has so far avoided forming a governing coalition with the Sweden Democrats. Lofven was ousted in a no-confidence vote within his party and stepped down as prime minister in September, leaving Sweden in further limbo as the political parties attempt to broker a governing coalition.


Through a series of coalitions, Angela Merkel has been chancellor of Germany since 2005. She heads the Christian Democratic Union (CDU). She is the longest-serving continuous head of government in the E.U.

Merkel's Germany has been the de facto leader of Europe for years. Despite Merkel's preference for welcoming asylum-seekers, many within Germany have pushed back on increasing the migrant population within the country. In 2015, Merkel suspended applying the Dublin Regulation, allowing for migrants to apply for asylum within Germany despite the fact that they had traveled through other E.U. countries before their arrival. Between 2015 and 2017, over 1.36 million asylum-seekers entered Germany.

In 2017 elections, the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party entered the German Bundestag for the first time by capturing 12.6 percent of the vote, establishing itself as the third-largest represented party. AfD ran a campaign characterized by the Wall Street Journal as wanting to "close its borders to asylum applicants ... as well as to amend the country's constitution to allow people born to non-German parents to have their German citizenship revoked if they commit serious crimes."

In addition to the newfound popularity of the AfD, Merkel's own party, the long-dominant Christian Democratic Union, has faced challenges from allies due to her views on immigration. Bavaria's Christian Social Union, the CDU's sister party led by Horst Seehofer, has repeatedly come to political blows with Merkel over migration and may lose its majority in the federal state that it has controlled since the 1950s. The Bavarian CSU's chief competitor is none other than the AfD. The next federal elections will be held in October 2021. Indeed, if the CSU and CDU undergo a political divorce, Merkel may face an uphill battle to retain the chancellery.


Italy was left to bear the brunt of the migrant crisis due to its geographic proximity to migrants crossing the Mediterranean. Italy faces waves of asylum-seekers and was one of the first countries to deal with the irregular flows in 2015, unlike E.U. members further north. Nearly 600,000 migrants are believed to have reached Italy since 2014.

By all accounts, anti-migrant sentiment has risen in Italy, with the New York Times describing the anger as "boiling". That anger is partly responsible for propelling Matteo Salvini, the head of Lega Nord party, and his allies to power in the 2018 elections.

Previously, Salvini's Lega Nord was a Northern secessionist group with its anger focused on Rome rather than Brussels. Under Salvini, they morphed into a Eurosceptic populist party whose electoral coalition received significant popular support in the 2018 election. After joining with another successful populist party, the Five Star Movement, they were able to form a government. Before, governments had switched between broadly center-right and center-left groupings.

Like Hungary's Orban, Italy's Salvini, now the country's interior minister, has cast himself as a fervent opponent of the E.U.'s migration policies. He rose to prominence campaigning for the Lega Nord party on a platform of Euroscepticism and a hard-line stance toward illegal immigration. The newfound electoral success of the populist Lega Nord is due in large part to Salvini's focus on illegal immigration as a significant campaign issue.


France has struggled to integrate its migrant community into French society, raising concerns that migrant communities are developing a "parallel society" in the country by not integrating fully into French life. The problem has become so dire in the eyes of French lawmakers that President Emmanuel Macron is reviewing a report calling for the state to regulate aspects of Islam within the country. France has also been the victim of numerous high-profile terrorist attacks, further highlighting the need to address the problem within these communities.

While remaining a visible ally of Merkel's within the E.U., Macron's approval ratings in France have reached staggering lows due to unpopular domestic reforms. Macron will remain in office until at least 2022, when the next presidential election takes place, but whether or not he can affect European migration policy while facing domestic political challenges remains to be seen.


Migration continues to be the issue of the day for the European Union and its constituent member-states. Angela Merkel herself said that migration could "decide the fate of the EU".

The E.U. is trying to reform, albeit slowly. Leaders recently unveiled a new migrant policy proposal that included potential changes:

  1. Housing migrants rescued at sea in control centers located only in member-states willing to host them;
  2. No compulsory relocation measures;
  3. Tightened external borders;
  4. Asylum processing centers abroad in sending countries; and
  5. Additional financial aid to perimeter countries currently housing large numbers of potential Europe-seeking migrants (e.g. Turkey and Libya)

These proposals were welcomed by advocates such as Germany and France as well as countries hostile to additional migration, such as Italy. But will this be enough? There are serious questions regarding the efficacy of such a proposal. Which member-states will voluntarily host more migrants, generally known to be politically unpopular domestically? How can countries such as Italy and Greece be sure that they will not continue to shoulder the entire burden of migrants if there are no compulsory relocation measures?

These questions will be answered throughout the coming months as the E.U. struggles to act in unison. Migration will continue to dominate European politics and will be a primary campaign issue in the May 2019 European parliament elections.