Refugee crisis, ‘Brexit’ loom before EU summit

Gregory Katz
Associated Press

London — If the European Union were a patient, its survival would be seen as threatened by multiple organ failure.

That’s the view of many experts as EU leaders prepare for a Brussels summit that starts Thursday. Analysts believe the combined strain of challenges including a refugee crisis, threats facing the euro currency and Britain’s plan to hold a referendum on whether to leave the EU may be unbearable for the 28-nation bloc.

Just 20 years ago, the EU seemed to be growing in stature as it proudly offered freedom and democracy — along with lucrative subsidies, military alliances and billions in foreign investment — to newly freed former Soviet satellites.

Now, NATO warships are steaming toward the Aegean Sea in an escalated bid to impose order on the chaotic arrival of more than 1 million migrants, which has not abated despite the wintry weather in southern Europe.

Informal mini-blocs have formed within the European Union, with some countries banding together to challenge, or just ignore, the EU’s announced refugee resettlement program. Temporary border controls have been introduced in key countries including Germany and France, threatening the cherished notion of freedom of movement across European borders.

Britain, a nuclear power with a seat at the U.N. Security Council, is demanding concessions before a referendum on whether the U.K. should simply abandon the EU, a prospect known as “Brexit.” And a slow-burning, extremely divisive budget crunch threatens the future of the euro single currency that has been a hallmark of European integration.

Ian Kearns, director of the European Leadership Network research group in London, said the EU is “undergoing an existential crisis” as a once shared sense of mission fades. Countries are pursuing their perceived national interests instead of seeking collective solutions, he said, and the notion of European solidarity is fading.

“It’s anybody’s guess now whether it will survive long term,” he said of the European Union. “I think it’s that serious.”

The summit is one of a series of meetings that have tried, but mostly failed, to find an effective collective response to the chaotic arrival of so many people. Leaders will consider fairly minor changes to Britain’s status aimed at placating restive British voters ahead of a referendum, and assess how well — or poorly — earlier edicts on migration have been implemented.

The union has a knack for solving difficult situations by building consensus, and papering over cracks with layers of bureaucracy, but some warn the migrant situation is a more serious threat to continental unity.

Officials had expected the flow of desperate people fleeing war and poverty would slow during the winter months, but The International Organization for Migration said this week that 76,000 people — nearly 2,000 per day — have reached Europe by sea since Jan. 1, a nearly tenfold increase over the same period the year before. More than 400 have died, most of them drowning in frigid waters.