Immigration is never far from the headlines. In June footage appeared of Latin American immigrants being separated from their children at the US border in Texas. Last week European leaders met in Brussels to agree new rules for processing large numbers of migrants from North Africa and the Middle East.
Migration control is nothing new.
In the US security of its southern border has been a long-running issue for decades. While in Europe migration from around the Mediterranean came to a head in 2014 following the collapse of numerous governments during the so-called Arab Spring and the civil war in Syria.
Despite the evident human tragedy of people-trafficking and the flight of refugees from regions devastated by war or poverty, the political narrative in both the US and Europe is just as much about the identity, values, and even survival of the host nations themselves.
The EU has a population of around 510 million. Its GDP is $17.1 trillion. In theory there should be no barrier to accepting and supporting the 3 million asylum seekers from the last four years. Indeed, for the previous two decades asylum applications were around three hundred thousand a year, and managed without undue difficulty.
So how has the issue suddenly become so acute as to threaten the integrity of the EU itself? Particularly when the UN estimates that just 46,000 migrants have come to Europe in 2018, and many of those who came in the crisis years have now returned home.
In Italy, the right wing League campaigned to halt illegal immigration and is now in government. The country has taken in 650,000 migrants since 2014 and more continue to arrive. Interior minister, Matteo Salvini, wants other EU members to take their fair share. Italy has now closed the country’s ports to foreign-flagged migrant rescue ships.
In Germany, Angela Merkel’s coalition partner, the CSU, risks losing seats to the anti-immigration AfD in regional elections this autumn. The interior minister, Horst Seehofer, wants to unilaterally turn away at the border those registered for asylum elsewhere in the EU unless the bloc agrees to spread them round more evenly. This would undermine Europe’s Schengen passport-free zone. Both parties need an EU-wide solution.
Migration has also been a key factor in elections in France, Austria and Hungary. Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia have refused to take migrants and no longer wish to discuss the issue.
The recent EU summit was designed to put in place measures to prevent a repeat of the 2014 crisis in future.
Yet more significant than debate of specific proposals has been the animosity between member states beforehand.
This has very broadly been divided into the right wing populists in the centre and east of Europe, generally poorer and more affected by this crisis; and the richer, western liberals, not so impacted by the arrival of migrants at their borders. Germany sits in the middle, politically and geographically: Angela Merkel's government opened the doors to more than 1 million migrants, but was fiercely opposed by coalition partners, and the emerging anti-migration AfD.
France's President Macron has called for sanctions on EU members who do not accept their fair share of migrants. He is supported by EU Commissioner Pierre Moscovici who stated "it is not legitimate that nations which refuse to show solidarity would continue receiving a similar proportion of EU funding”.
Diplomatic language was strained to breaking point as President Macron spoke of "the leprosy" spreading across Europe, opposed to EU solidarity on issues like migration, calling Italy's decision to ban migrant ships as "sickening".
Luigi Di Maio leader of Italy's Five-Star Movement responded: “The real leprosy is the hypocrisy of someone who pushes back immigrants and then wants to preach to us.”
Matteo Salvini leader of the League added: “We may be leper populists, but I will take lessons when he welcomes tens of thousands of migrants, then we can talk.”
For Angela Merkel the issues are also pressing. Speaking to the Bundestag she said: “Europe faces many challenges, but that of migration could become the make-or-break one for the EU".
Britain's former PM Tony Blair gave his own warning over Europe's future and a return of 1930s politics: "Once it is clear, populism isn’t working because, ultimately, it offers only expressions of anger and not effective answers, the populists may double down, alleging that failure is the result of half-heartedness and that only more of the same will work."
After aggressive pre-summit rhetoric, response to the agreements has been muted. Nevertheless, despite the lack of details, several decisions are significant. The concept of secure processing facilities has been approved, and could make it easier to send migrants back if their appeals are unsuccessful.
The EU has pledged to work in cooperation with North Africa in preventing migrants reaching the EU. There is nothing new in this (Australia does the same with immigrants in Papua New Guinea), but it does reinforce a fortress Europe mentality, rather than one that is open and welcoming.
Vaguer agreements were made to review first country of entry, free movement in the EU and financial incentives to improve living conditions in Africa. The emphasis was on voluntary terms rather than central compulsion.
For now this has kept the anti-immigration voices quiet but important too is the battle of values. It is significant that in Italy the populist right finds common ground on this issue with the anti-globalist left: for the left has often vigorously supported immigration and multi-culturalism, dismissing criticism as racist.
Modern internationalist Europe grew in response to World War Two. Free movement was one of those idealistic pillars. The migrant crisis of 2014 and the responses to it continue to raise the questions: who are Europe's freedoms for? And how far can nation states resist uncontrolled mass migration.