By Serife Cetin
BRUSSELS (AA) – A new "iron curtain" has descended across the EU since 2015, when member countries started taking divergent stances in the face of the immigration crisis.
An east-west axis has emerged between the EU member states who want to follow a more moderate path versus those who pursue stricter anti-immigrant policies.
While Italy and Austria are getting close to Eastern European countries seeking strict anti-immigration policies under new governments, Western European countries are trying to find solutions by signing agreements.
– Visegrad Group makes new friends
Greece and Italy are among the countries playing a key role in EU immigration policy, as they are often at the front line of immigrants seeking entry to the union.
Although the 2016 migration pact between Turkey and the EU in 2016 lightened Greece's burden, immigrants coming from Libya continue to push Italy’s limits.
Until its parliamentary elections this March, Italy followed a policy of taking joint decisions within the EU to stop the immigration flow. But after the new center-right bloc formed a government, Italy changed its point of view on the issue.
It appears that with its new government, Italy is getting closer to the Visegrad Group — a cultural and political alliance that includes the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia — a bloc notorious for its anti-immigration policies.
The Visegrad Group, with its refusal to take in immigrants under an EU-wide resettlement quota scheme, offers Italy an attractive alliance option.
Under the scheme, a total of 160,000 asylum-seekers are supposed to be distributed across the 28-nation bloc, mainly from the most-affected countries such as Italy and Greece, to other EU member states.
But despite the agreement, Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic have refused to accept any refugees.
Matteo Salvini, Italy’s anti-immigrant deputy prime minister and interior minister, previously said Rome would do anything to prevent illegal immigrants coming to Italy.
After Salvini took his post, he called for an anti-immigration alliance across Europe and tried to forge an alliance with Hungary on this.
At a joint news conference with Salvini in late August, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said the most important issue in Europe was migration and added that Hungary is the country which has proved that migration can be stopped.
"He [Salvini] is highly respected because he has taken on the historic mission to prove that migration can also be stopped at sea," Orban was quoted as saying in a statement from the Hungarian government.
“So far no one else in any other maritime country has undertaken to do this; he is the first and so far only one, and Europe’s security depends on his success.”
Also, Salvini supported the idea, saying Italy will work with Hungary to change the EU’s rules.
– Bonds over opposition to immigration
The other EU member country moving closer to the Visegrad Group is Austria.
Since Austria took over the rotating European Union Council presidency from Bulgaria in late June, the country has vowed to “fight illegal immigration by securing external borders” during its time at the EU helm.
“The aim is to work more closely with third countries in order to ensure effective return policies and to provide assistance to those in need of protection before they enter the EU while, on the other hand, preventing those not in need of protection from setting off on the dangerous crossing to Europe," the country's EU Presidency said in a statement.
Austrian Deputy Prime Minister Heinz-Christian Strache has said he wants Vienna to become a member of Visegrad Group.
Countries such as Hungary and Poland have also welcomed joint alliances among EU member states opposed to immigration.
Hungary’s Orban said that unlike France, "which supports migration," his country wants to stop illegal migration.
Orban said he would like to stand with the European people who oppose illegal migration, according to a statement from the Hungarian government.
His remarks highlight the disunity among EU member states on the migration issue.
– Ties with western bloc tense
While Italy, pursuing anti-immigrant policies, is growing closer to Eastern European countries, at the same time it is moving away from member states such as Spain and France.
Relations between Paris and Rome grew tense this June after French President Emmanuel Macron denounced Italy's "cynicism" and "irresponsibility" for denying entry to a ship carrying hundreds of migrants rescued in the Mediterranean.
The ship, the Aquarius, rescued around 230 migrants, and more than 400 were transferred to the ship by Italian military and merchant ships in the area. They were originally set to dock in Italy, but Italy’s newly formed government turned the ship away.
Spain’s new Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez later offered to provide safe harbor, saying on Twitter, “it is our obligation … We comply with international commitments regarding humanitarian emergencies.”
After Spain’s offer, Salvini celebrated, tweeting “VICTORY! 629 immigrants abroad the ship Aquarius headed for Spain, primary goal achieved!”
Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte also accused France of "hypocrisy."
– Bilateral deals in the west
Western European countries tend to support a more moderate migration policy and favor a single EU policy to tackle the issue.
After the immigration problem threatened Germany’s coalition government, member countries looked for bilateral or trilateral deals.
In June German Chancellor Angela Merkel managed to clinch an agreement with EU member states at a summit in Brussels which envisaged setting up “migrant camps” inside and outside the EU, where asylum-seekers would be forced to stay when their applications are examined by officials.
Merkel also pledged to conclude bilateral agreements with European partners such as Greece and Spain, with the goal of returning asylum-seekers who first entered the EU soil from these countries, but later arrived in Germany.
Germany has received more than a million refugees in the last three years, mostly from Syria and Iraq.
Merkel’s decision in 2015 to open Germany’s doors to refugees fleeing conflicts and persecution was widely criticized by conservatives, and exploited by far-right and populist parties.
In addition, in Sweden, right now it is a key concern what kind of migration policy the Democrats pursue after they are able to form a new government.
– Migration policy buffeted by political winds
The disagreements and nascent alliances that have recently arisen among EU member states are mainly due to the fact that for several years the EU has been unable to find a solution to immigration policy.
Although the EU, which has been trying to solve the problem with ad hoc solutions since the peak of the migrant crisis in 2015, has seen a reduced immigrant flow to the continent, political changes in member countries are still sowing division.
The EU states, which have difficulty agreeing on even the simplest issues, cannot agree on a single immigration policy. This leads member states to produce immigration policy according to the political tendencies of their ruling parties.
That's why we cannot ignore the possibilities of the "anti-immigrant alliance" that Italy and Austria have been forming with the Visegrad Group, or the end of deals among Western European countries facing changing political winds.
* Diyar Guldogan from Ankara contributed to this story