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European Union Summit Could Be Derailed Over Immigration Debate


Tempers flared at a summit of European leaders today. Even Germany's normally stoic chancellor, Angela Merkel, was set on edge. The issue of migration is threatening to derail the summit and threatening to topple Merkel's government. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is at the summit in Brussels, but she begins this story in Berlin, where the political fireworks started.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: The chancellor usually briefs the German Parliament about what she plans to talk about at EU summits right before she heads to Brussels. Her parliamentary opponents get their turn to criticize those plans while Merkel politely listens.



NELSON: But what was different today was the heckling. It started while the chancellor spoke and grew louder. She finally lost her temper.


MERKEL: (Speaking in German).


NELSON: Merkel glared and said, "my God, really," drawing applause from her supporters in the chamber. Her hecklers were mostly from the far-right Alternative for Germany, which is the largest opposition party in the German Parliament and co-chaired by lawmaker Alexander Gauland.


ALEXANDER GAULAND: (Through interpreter) Of course we share values with our European neighbors, but that doesn't replace national interests. And the fact is many countries feel they should close and lock their doors and not just let anyone in.

NELSON: That sentiment is growing across the European Union, where right-wing populists have stoked voter fears about migration to gain a foothold in, if not control of, more of the bloc's governments. They argue the 1 1/2 million mainly Muslim migrants who have come here since 2015 threaten Europe's cultural and religious identity. They also wrongly claim that the newcomers are driving up crime rates.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban is one of the leaders embracing this narrative and refers to arriving migrants as an invasion, never mind that Hungary only allows two asylum-seekers in per day through its heavily fortified and guarded borders. He told reporters at the summit other EU member states should follow his example.


PRIME MINISTER VIKTOR ORBAN: Finally, we will do what the people really request.

NELSON: EU countries disagree on who in the bloc should be responsible for the newcomers. And like Hungary, many individual member states are vowing to seal their borders if the EU fails to take a hard line on migrants. But Merkel and her supporters, including EU Council President Donald Tusk, want some kind of EU agreement.


DONALD TUSK: The alternative to this solution would be a chaotically advancing closure of borders as well as growing conflicts among EU member states.

NELSON: Even so, Italy's new populist prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, is reported to have hopelessly stalled the meeting. He is refusing to sign summit statements on any subject until the EU addresses his concerns about the thousands of migrants crossing the Mediterranean and landing on Italian shores. The stalemate adds to Merkel's own political crisis.

Her interior minister is threatening to go rogue and close Germany's borders to many asylum-seekers as early as Sunday if the EU doesn't agree to take a harder line on migration. If that happens, she will have little choice but to fire the minister, which would likely lead to the breakup of her governing coalition and the end of her political career. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Brussels. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Special correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is based in Berlin. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and read at From 2012 until 2018 Nelson was NPR's bureau chief in Berlin. She won the ICFJ 2017 Excellence in International Reporting Award for her work in Central and Eastern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan.