It amuses me to see the way three Maltese MEPs have taken on the mantle of saving democracy in the European Union, which they see as being undermined “by corruption”.

The latest diatribe came from MEP Roberta Metsola in her ‘Talking Point’ of February 28, a worthy sixth form essay on the “fragility” of European democracy and the crusade she intends to lead “to act and act soon… by the end of the year [as otherwise] the entire European project [will be] put at risk”.

May I respectfully suggest to Metsola that, rather than focussing on vacuous calls to save democracy in Europe “because of corruption”, as she sees it, she focusses her extremely well-paid time on the issue of migration and its monstrous twin, nationalism, in Europe?

This is the real threat to the future of democracy in the EU. Europe faces a perfect storm from rising immigration and political extremism bubbling above and below the democratic surface. And the European Parliament, to which these MEPs belong, appears bereft of ideas for dealing with it.

Germany’s migration experiment in 2015, when Angela Merkel opened her country’s frontiers to an uncontrolled flow of migrants, could be seen at this distance as potentially ushering in the creeping disunity of the European Union. Her misguided migration experiment unleashed forces that Brussels still doesn’t understand.

As Italy’s election results have shown, the political momentum is with those parties – the League, Forza Italia and the 5-Star party – that made an explicit link between migrants and crime, and revel in nationalistic pride. If there is one clear message from Italy, it is the howl of anger against a political system seen to have failed. A party founded by a comedian vies for power with a coalition of Euro-sceptic populists, including neo-Fascists.

Merkel has grasped that her naïve act of generosity three years ago stirred up nationalist and tribal animosities in a Union that was supposed to tame them. At the last German elections six months ago, a million voters switched from her Christian Democrats to an insurgent far-right grouping, Alternative for Germany (AfD), which won more than 90 seats in the parliament.

And the Social Democrats, her partners in the grand coalition, were similarly punished, to the extent that in the latest polls they have been overtaken by AfD, the official Opposition – or, as the party itself would put it, the main alternative for Germany.

Merkel now borrows the rhetoric of the far right, even renaming its interior ministry Heimat (Homeland) despite its Nazi echoes. It is too late. The votes have gone. In Germany, the EU’s indispensable nation, the latest grand coalition looks very wobbly indeed.

When people feel there is little control over who comes into their country, resentment builds

So, too, does the centre ground across the rest of Europe. We already know what has happened in Italy, the third largest economy in Europe. In Austria the far-right Freedom Party has entered the government as part of a coalition deal. In the Netherlands Geert Wilders’s Party for Freedom gained a large number of seats even though he failed to prevent a centre-right party from holding on to government.

Despite Macron’s victory, immigration remains a running sore in France. In the north, the ultra-nationalist Sweden Democrats have some 15 per cent support, enough to block the formation of a centrist government in September’s election. In Hungary and Poland nationalist governments threaten the rule of law. Immigration was a major factor leading to Brexit in the UK.

The fury of nationalism in countries throughout Europe has erupted during the migration crisis. The fear of being overwhelmed by foreign newcomers – in the way that some German and Italian towns and villages have been – propels the nationalist agenda across Europe. When people feel there is little control over who comes into their country, resentment builds. Antipathy to even legal immigration increases.

Germany’s migration experiment brought to a head, as it did in other EU states, the scramble for social housing, the crowded schoolrooms, the proportion of local budgets that go in child benefits to the newcomers. The more the welfare states of any nation in Europe appear to be a sieve through which people of any nation may enter, the more public consent is undermined.

Strong borders – and the public confidence they engender – are vital in avoiding swings to the extremes of politics, as we have seen in Germany, Italy, Austria, the Netherlands, Sweden, Greece, Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and elsewhere. European leaders have experimented with relaxed borders and their populations have responded to this dangerous benevolence by voting in their thousands for the far-right.

The crisis gripping Europe is not just about national identity and protecting borders – which so motivates populism and right-wing nationalism – but about a culture of displacement. It is certainly not – as Metsola and her colleagues naively believe – about so-called “corruption” in democracies. At its heart it is about nationalism, racism and xenophobia that undermine democracies.

Migration has put immense strain on European society. This is why the EU has ended up with a proliferation of nationalist right-wing parties in so many countries, making it excruciatingly difficult to form stable governments.

The nationalistic anti-government backlash against austerity and immigration is a reflection of citizens’ anger at Brussels’ ineffectiveness. From the toe of Italy to Calais and from the Balkans to northern and central Europe, the continent is awash with immigrants while Brussels and EU leaders are asleep at the wheel.

Europe urgently needs to deal with the issues of migration, including integrating those deemed suitable, as well as returning others who are ineligible to their home countries. This means faster processing of asylum seekers, tighter security checks and quicker deportation. It requires a huge concerted effort, a rethinking of the continent’s relationship to North Africa and a more focussed approach to development aid.

If the European Parliament wants to stand its ground on behalf of liberal democracies it has to address the migration crisis – a crisis to which Malta is extremely vulnerable.

It has to create safe borders. The alternative is to sit by as a humanitarian wave is allowed to sour the faith of European citizens in their leaders and in democracy itself.

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