BERLIN — Can Europe be saved?
No less weighty a question will hang over the dinner table at the European Council’s ramshackle Brussels headquarters as the leaders of the EU’s 28 member countries gather for their first summit of the year.
The agenda is focused on the thorniest of challenges, from coaxing the U.K. to remain in the EU to keeping the huddled masses of the Middle East and Africa out.
At some point between the aperitif and dessert, leaders will look for ways to rescue the Schengen treaty, Europe’s system of open borders that is now under threat from the refugee crisis.
Europe’s leaders have been warning for months that failure to reach agreement on any of these fronts, whether it be Brexit, the refugee crisis or Schengen, could sound the European Union’s death knell.
“The risk of break up is real,” summit host Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, said this week. “This process is indeed very fragile. Handle with care! What is broken cannot be mended.”
Tusk has assumed the role of town crier in recent days, crisscrossing the Continent, channeling Shakespeare as he cajoled government leaders toward consensus. “To be, or not to be together, that is the question,” he declared this month.
Of course, Europe is no stranger to slings and arrows.
During the euro crisis, the do-or-die summit became the norm. Faced with the prospect of collapse, Europe inevitably stepped back from the precipice. The summit agreements, often little more than quick fixes, were still enough to keep the peace.
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Yet this time around, the danger of collapse is real, officials both inside and outside the EU cocoon warn. The issues at hand won’t be resolved with stop-gap measures or by Germany simply opening its wallet, as it did to preserve the euro.
Europe’s standard operating procedure for dealing with difficult problems — to delay action — won’t work this time around either. The clock has run down. The refugees won’t wait. Nor will the Brits.
That said, Europe’s reckoning was inevitable. The summit’s agenda points are simply proxies for the existential question Europeans have dodged for years: What does European solidarity really mean? Or, in simpler terms: more Europe, less Europe, or no Europe?
“This will be an indicator summit,” said Jan Techau, the head of Carnegie Europe. “The question is how much political capital members are still willing to invest in Europe.”
In true European fashion, the answer so far appears to be “that depends.”
British Prime Minister David Cameron is likely to leave the summit Friday with much of what he asked for, from a commitment to cut Brussels red tape to permission to limit welfare benefits for EU migrants.
EU and national leaders will do their part to help Cameron at home by screaming bloody murder to make it appear as though he has gotten the better of them.
In fact, the deal on the table costs them little, if anything. Losing the EU’s second-largest economy, financial center and most vibrant city, however, would be a heavy blow. An uneasy consensus has emerged in Europe’s capitals in recent months that Brexit would likely be the beginning of the end for the EU.
It’s still unclear whether Cameron can sell a deal to the British public. If he can’t, it won’t be because Europe stood in his way, however.
Unless Europe makes headway in dealing with the refugee crisis at the summit, the Brexit threat may be moot. Here, countries have shown little willingness to invest political capital in the name of solidarity.
Germany, Europe’s fulcrum, has been left to fend for itself.
Angela Merkel had originally hoped for a breakthrough at the summit on allocating refugees across the EU’s 28 members. Such a quota system remains a distant dream, however, with most countries only willing to take a token number of refugees, if any at all. Last fall, EU countries agreed to allocate some 160,000 refugees. In the wake of the Paris terror attacks, most demurred.
Given that resistance, Merkel said on Tuesday that Germany would look “ridiculous” if it continued to insist on quotas.
Instead, she plans to enlist members of the so-called coalition of the willing, a group of 10 countries including those most directly affected by the crisis, to help pressure Turkey into stemming the flow of refugees.
Merkel’s fear is that the re-implementation of border controls in Austria and other countries along the Balkan route to Germany could trigger both the collapse of the Schengen agreement and a humanitarian crisis in Greece, where the refugees would likely be stranded.
The death of Schengen would be a disaster for Europe, both in economic and political terms.
Merkel understands that Schengen is the embodiment of Europe for many in the region, and she will use that argument at the summit. The trouble is that the repercussions of its collapse are abstract, whereas the refugees are real.
What’s more, Merkel’s “coalition of the willing” now faces formidable resistance: the Visegrád Group. If nothing else, the refugee crisis has given the Central European members of the EU something to agree on.
Long irrelevant, the Visegrád quartet has emerged in the refugee crisis as a potent political force. It’s far from clear whether they will compromise. Schengen is their economic lifeblood. But unlike Merkel, they see the key to saving it on the Greek-Macedonian border. Closing that crossing, the main refugee entry point from Greece towards the rest of the EU, would halt the flow.
The German leader warns that saddling Greece with the refugees would only worsen the crisis, and she has vowed to fight the idea. Greece, still battered by an economic crisis, has struggled to even register the refugees. More than one million traveled to Europe in 2015. If a similar number come this year, and Macedonia seals its border under EU pressure, Greece could soon turn into the continent’s Lebanon.
“It goes without saying that I will put the greatest effort into making sure that the European-Turkish path proves to be the path that is worth continuing,” Merkel told German MPs before heading to the summit.
Despite resistance from Central Europe, Merkel will likely get her wish. Leaders may also endorse Germany’s tougher line on economic refugees, allowing Merkel to claim a small victory at home.
Her plan is to push for a deeper EU solution at the next summit in March. The question is whether that will be too late.
Germans have become impatient and want to see progress in reducing the number of refugees. In March, Merkel faces a trio of important regional elections. The right-wing AfD party is expected to do well in all three.
The chancellor has staked her political future on resolving the refugee crisis and her fellow leaders know they can’t send her back to Berlin empty handed, even if they disagree with her.
Any gesture of support would be less about charity, however, than a refusal to think the unthinkable.
“No one can imagine a Europe without Merkel,” Techau said.