Terror, migrant crisis ‘testing European Union to its limits’

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.

 The European Union has been tested to its limits by terrorism and mass migration, and this week’s attack in Istanbul underlines the gravity of the threat it faces, senior EU figures have said.

The candid prognosis emerged as political leaders in central and eastern Europe pointed to the migrant violence against women in Cologne and other cities as proof that they had been right to oppose Angela Merkel’s open-door refugee policy last summer.

Martin Schulz, the German president of the European parliament, said that the Sultanahmet Square bombing, which claimed the lives of ten German tourists, suggested that 2016 would bring the toughest challenge to the country’s stability since unification in 1990. He warned that the political fallout from terrorist attacks and migration would also test the EU to breaking point, with Germany having failed in its attempt to solve the migrant crisis through a system of large reception centres and a policy of apportioning asylum seekers between nations.

Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, was equally pessimistic. “The EU was tested to its limits [in 2015] and I cannot see anything to indicate this year will be any different,” he said.

Several of Germany’s neighbours joined a chorus of “we told you so” over Mrs Merkel’s welcome for 1.1 million migrants last year, after the sex attacks on hundreds of women on New Year’s Eve by mobs of men of Arabic or north African appearance.

Robert Fico, the prime minister of Slovakia, said that Germany was wrong to have regarded migrants as a “protected species”. Viktor Orban, the conservative Hungarian prime minister, spoke of a “crisis of liberalism” evident in the suppression of the reporting of migrant sexual assaults in Cologne.

Zsolt Bayer, a co-founder of Mr Orban’s ruling Fidesz party, described the attackers as “north African and Arabic animals” in a newspaper article. Mrs Merkel was “letting her family and children get eaten by hyenas” and liberals were “digging Europe’s grave”, he said.

Mr Schulz broke with protocol at a new year reception for diplomats and royalty in Brussels on Tuesday to say that Germany faced existential pressures this year that could, in turn, destroy the EU. “Last year was the worst in my political career,” he said. “I cannot remember such a year, starting with terror, ending with terror and with multiple crises from one day to another.”

The Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris were followed by the eurozone crisis, which almost broke the single currency, before a record influx of migrants pushed the passport-free Schengen zone to the point of collapse. The year ended as it began, with terrorist attacks in Paris that killed 130 people — carried out by Islamic State jihadists who had travelled into Europe among refugees.

“Nobody knows what we are facing this year,” Mr Schulz said. “We are threatened as never before.”

European diplomats at the gathering were concerned that a worsening German political situation would present the EU with its next crisis.

“The worst nightmare for the European project is an outbreak of populism or political upheaval in Germany. Now it is looking like a real possibility,” a veteran EU diplomat said. “Looking at Germany, especially after Cologne, there is the objective basis for a political explosion if someone lights the fuse.”

The anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany party has hit new highs in opinion polls, but no rightwing populist leader has yet broken through to challenge for power in the same way as Marine Le Pen in France, or Geert Wilders in the Netherlands.

Mrs Merkel may decide to suspend Schengen for a couple of years to head off growing nationalism — and that would be “the beginning of the end for Europe”, the EU diplomat said.

Mrs Merkel’s government announced laws yesterday (Wednesday) to make it easier to deport foreign criminals, including the right of removal after one year in prison instead of three. “No one is above the law in Germany, regardless of what passport he has,” Heiko Maas, the justice minister, said during a debate in the Bundestag about the Cologne sex attacks. “There will be more expulsions — we do not only owe that to the victims of New Year’s Eve in Cologne but it also serves to protect future victims. And we protect the hundreds of thousands of innocent refugees in our country who do not deserve to be lumped together with criminals.

“It is true that many of the offenders in Cologne were migrants, but the triumphalism of the populists and racists and the sweeping incitement against refugees that has started since then is disgusting too,” he added. “We will not let our help for millions of refugees in need be called into question because a few hundreds of them are criminals.”

MPs in Denmark debated new laws yesterday to seize assets from migrants carrying valuables worth more than 10,000 Danish krone ($2000). The threshold had been raised from 3,000 krone to secure a majority in a vote on the law on January 26, but ministers still faced criticism from some quarters that the measure damaged Denmark’s international reputation.

Bruno Waterfield contributed to this report

The Times

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