Various Western European leaders have warned that an uncontrollable influx of asylum seekers from the Middle East and North Africa threatens to undermine the bloc’s open borders.
Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte told reporters on Thursday that the European Union could go the way of the Roman Empire if it didn’t take action. “Big empires go down if the borders are not well-protected,” he said.
The Netherlands will take over the bloc’s rotating presidency in January.
Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, has similarly warned that the continent’s free-travel area, known as Schengen, is at risk. “We have to safeguard the spirit behind Schengen,” he told the European Parliament on Wednesday.
Juncker predicted that the demise of Schengen would herald the collapse of the euro as well. “A single currency does not exist if Schengen fails,” he said. “It is one of the pillars of the construction of Europe.”
Manuel Valls, the French prime minister, was even more direct: “We cannot accommodate any more refugees in Europe,” he told the German Süddeutsche Zeitung this week.
Public sentiment shifts
The leaders are catching up with a public that has decidedly turned against the immigrants, even if many are refugees from the wars in Iraq and Syria.
Even Sweden, long the most welcoming nation, says it has reached the limit of how many people it can take in.
The Scandinavian country has been the most popular destination for asylum seekers after Germany, where Chancellor Angela Merkel has come under fire from her own conservative supporters for so far insisting on an open-door policy.
Wolfgang Schäuble, Merkel’s hawkish finance minister, said earlier this month, “We need to send a clear message to the world: We are very much prepared to help, we’ve shown that we are, but our possibilities are also limited.”
Germany expects it will have to process up to one million asylum applications this year.
Der Spiegel reported last week that Merkel is starting to give in to her critics.
She has already agreed to create “transit zones” on Germany’s borders to control the flow of people coming in. Family reunifications are also frozen.
Now the German leader is speaking of quotes: fixed numbers of refugees that Europe would accept.
Merkel’s priority, according to Der Spiegel, is saving Schengen. “The price would be to largely seal off the EU external border.”
Free travel has already been suspended between several member states. Both Austria and Slovenia are stopping people at their frontier. Denmark temporarily reimposed border checks. And France closed its borders completely after terrorist attacks in Paris earlier this month left more than 130 dead.
Rutte cautioned against conflating the migrant crisis with the terror threat Europe faces.
“There’s no reason to think all the refugees are now potential terrorists.” He lamented that nationalists calling for a total immigration stop are making “one big soup of all this.”
But he also recognized that authorities need to do more to weed out suspects at Europe’s external border.
At least two of the Paris attackers entered Europe through a migrant facility in Greece, according to French investigators.
Schengen’s open borders also enabled them to plot their attacks from Brussels.
Belgium and the Netherlands recently initiated talks with Germany for a smaller Schengen Area that would exclude countries in Central and Southern Europe.
The new member states in the east are the most resistant to immigration.
Hungary, led by the right-wing prime minister Viktor Orbán, has sealed off its border with fellow European Union member state Croatia as well as non-EU Serbia. Slovakia has said it will only take in Christian refugees anymore, not Muslims. The conservative Law and Justice party won the election in Poland last month in part because it has been speaking out against high immigration.