EU leaders extend border controls; Merkel warns against ‘nationalism’

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( – Amid growing sentiment against open borders, European Union leaders are meeting in Rome to discuss the future of Europe’s refugee crisis, having taken a decision to extend internal border controls.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel sounded a note of caution, saying that solving the migrant crisis by closing Europe’s borders raised the risk of “falling back into nationalism.”

Along with a controversial proposed plan to fine those countries which refuse to accept asylum seekers – as much as 250,000 euros ($287,000) per migrant rejected – the E.U.’s executive Commission has extended the application of border controls in Germany, Austria, Sweden, Denmark and Norway.

All five countries are in the Schengen zone – 26 countries where travel is usually permitted without border controls.

The E.C. said it was taking the step in recognition of ongoing security concerns after the Brussels terror attacks in March and continued strain from refugees.

Earlier those countries sent an urgent letter to Brussels appealing for an extension of border controls.

Despite a significant downturn in migrant numbers after the implementation of the E.U.-Turkey “migrant-swap” agreement, E.C. First Vice-President Frans Timmermans conceded that “there is still is considerable migratory pressure at our external border, and large numbers of migrants present in Greece.”

“Therefore, as long as serious deficiencies in border management persist some internal border control measures should be maintained,” he said.

E.U. Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos promised that the controls would end before the year is out.

“The aim is that, by the end of this year, the Schengen zone will be fully normalized,” he told journalists in Brussels.

The measures come amid growing opposition in Europe to open borders – once a founding principle of European integration. A recent poll by France’s Institute for Opinion Research found that 72 percent of people in Franceprefer closed borders, while the figures for Germany and Italy were 66 percent and 60 percent respectively.

In a similar vein, a recent GlobeScan poll for the BBC found that Germans are less willing to consider themselves “global citizens.”  Out of 21 countries surveyed in the poll, Germany was found to be the second most inwardly focused, after Russia.

After a meeting in Rome with Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi Thursday Merkel spoke out against closing the borders.

The migrant crisis must be resolved “in a way different from closing borders,” she told reporters, warning that otherwise, “we risk falling back into nationalism.”

Her warning is relevant back home, where she must address the continuing rise of the far-right Alternative for Deutschland (AfD) party, which recently adopted a platform declaring that “Islam is not part of Germany.”

Merkel has been a strong advocate of “a culture of welcome” since the beginning of the refugee crisis.

While populist groups such as the AfD were initially widely condemned as right-wing extremists, it has now won representation in half of the country’s state governments.

Merkel instructed her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party that the AfD’s popularity could no longer be ridiculed as extremist xenophobia.

The CDU has begun sweeping measures to alleviate fears of the impact of a massive influx of migrants. Last month it formally agreed on an “integration package” which Merkel said entails not just “an offer for everyone but also requirements for everyone who arrives here.”

On one hand, the new measure provides incentives such as federal funding to create 100,000 jobs for refugees and subsidized educational courses. On the other, it promises consequences for those who do not earnestly try to integrate – such as to refugees who abandon state-assigned housing.

“Only those refugees who work toward their own integration will receive a permanent residence permit,” Merkel said.

She also recently backed a draft law, proposed by Labor Minister Andrea Nahles, that would require migrants (including other E.U. citizens) to wait five years before being able to receive any unemployment benefits.

“It can’t be the case that someone only has to move to another E.U. country to extract full social security benefits, even though they have a functioning social system in their own country,” Nahles was quoted as saying.

The meetings in Rome will continue into Friday as leaders discuss the refugee crisis, and include a meeting between Merkel and Pope Francis.

— Written by James Carstensen