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16th Feb 2019

Centre-right leaders close ranks on migration

  • EPP leaders gathered for the final photo to the sound of Sister Sledge's "We are family". (Photo: EPP)

At its congress in Madrid on Wednesday and Thursday (October 21-22) , the centre-right European Popular Party (EPP) demonstrated a united front and reached a synthesis of antagonistic positions over the migrant crisis.

"Together", translated into several languages, was the motto everywhere to be seen in the huge Palacio Municipal de Congresos, and EPP leaders gathered for the final group photo to the sound of Sister Sledge's "We are family".

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  • Migration issues "will determine the future of our political family," Orban said. (Photo: EPP)

The party's unity was also highlighted by the 96 percent secured by outgoing president Joseph Daul for his reelection on Wednesday.

Beyond these symbolic displays of unity, the main issue up for discussion was how to manage the arrival and installation of hundreds of thousands of migrants in the EU.

European way of life

"This issue will determine the future of our political family," Hungarian PM Viktor Orban said in his address to the congress. And he appeared to partly win his case, despite indirect contradiction with other leaders.

While Orban said that "neither the German way nor the Hungarian way of life is a basic right of all people on Earth," German chancellor Angela Merkel emphasised in her address that Europe should "help and find a home [for] those who have a right to stay as refugees".

European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, for his part, insisted that "the European way of life will last", as opposed to those such as Orban, who say that migrants threaten European civilisation.

"There are still debates," former EU commissioner Dacian Ciolos admitted to this website. "National perceptions are different and this diversity has to be addressed through debates".

But the general mood at the congress was leaning towards a stronger stance.

"We cannot pretend any longer that the great tide of migrants is something that we want, and that we are conducting a well thought-out policy of open borders," European Council president Donald Tusk told party delegates.

Divergences which became clear in August and September over the mechanism to relocate asylum seekers in EU countries were put aside and a common position was found in a resolution on migration policy adopted by delegates on Wednesday.

Protecting Schengen

The document, written by EPP interior ministers, calls for a strengthening of EU border controls, a selection to be made outside the EU between economic migrants and refugees, and an overhaul of the EU asylum system. It will be a basis for discussion in upcoming EU ministerial meetings.

The emphasis is now more openly on security and Hungary's positions are not considered as going 'too far'.

"People are understanding the situation," Viktor Orban told EUobserver at the end of the congress, adding he was satisfied that the party's common position "states the importance of protecting Schengen borders."

"The best proof" that antagonistic positions exemplified by Merkel and Orban are getting closer "is that the language of some partners is much closer than a few weeks ago," Donald Tusk told this website.

Now "nobody has doubts" over the need for "a parallel process between external border security and internal solidarity," Tusk said.

Populism

As a background to the debate over how to address the migration crisis, the rise of populism in Europe was also widely discussed by congress participants.

"Populism is the cancer of politics. It grows slowly," former Slovak PM Mikulas Dzurinda said in a debate organised on the sidelines of the congress.

Manfred Weber, the chief of the party's group at the European Parliament, said that is up to the EPP to find a solution.

"We must tell the truth to the people. Who really love their country must act for a stronger Europe," he told delegates in his address.

In a party that is not free from controversial members, be they in power in their country or a minority in their own national party, former Greek PM Antonis Samaras reminded that "if you belong to the EPP, you should abide by its principles, and you should be told that you don't belong to it if you do not abide".

The EPP must stick to "moderation and responsability", said party secretary general Antonio Lopez-Isturiz.

"This may not destroy populism but we will gain the trust of the voters," he said, adding that Spain's left-wing Podemos and France's far-right Front National "have many things in common".

Support for Rajoy

The Madrid congress was also an international campaign meeting for Spanish PM Mariano Rajoy. Rajoy faces an election on 20 December, in which Podemos is his main critic.

All EPP leaders expressed their support for Rajoy.

"Thank you for your policies and the policies of the PP", Merkel said referring to Rajoy's Popular Party. "You took the bull by the horns".

"I want to express my wish, my will, to see the PP win the election," Juncker said, somehow overstepping his position as president of the European Commission.

"The EU needs Spain, and Spain needs the Partido Popular," he added.

EPP and Commission to strengthen links

Three European commissioners are expected to sit in the centre-right party's executive body after its congress in Madrid later this week.

EU mini-summit to 'slow flows' of refugees

Commission blueprint, seen by EUobserver, says frontline states in Western Balkans to receive hundreds of extra border guards to “slow down flows” of refugees.

Sluggish procedure against Hungary back on table

EU probes into Hungary and Poland on rule of law and democracy are back on the agenda of EU affairs ministers - but with little guidance from the Romanian presidency, without a clear idea where the procedures are headed.

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