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At home, she is under relentless pressure. Abroad, the atmosphere is increasingly bitter. He is adamant that other EU nations must take more migrants to relieve the pressure on Italy. The common factor in all this is, of course, migration. Gaze across the Continent and you see the same pattern.

From Greece to Germany, from Sicily to Scandinavia, people are unhappy about mass migration, are punishing the politicians they blame for it and are increasingly drifting into the arms of the extremist Right. And as a result, Mrs Merkel and her allies, who have staked their careers on building an ever-closer union and banishing the nation-state to history, are facing a horrible collision with reality. It is hard to exaggerate the threat that all this poses to the European project.

Could it finish the EU? Again and again they insist that talk of reducing immigration is tantamount to fascism, and insist that any deal must preserve freedom of movement, whatever the cost.

Earlier this week, the Business Secretary, Greg Clark, told our leaders of commerce that he wanted the softest possible Brexit in order to ensure free movement even though that is patently not what the country voted for in The irony, though, is that freedom of movement may be doomed anyway not because of Brexit, but because of what is happening in the heart of the EU itself.

In Austria, the year-old Right-wing Chancellor Sebastian Kurz sent hundreds of troops to the border to prepare for a possible migration surge this summer. In Hungary, the authoritarian leader Viktor Orban recently announced plans for a special 25 per cent tax on organisations that support migration.

So how did we get here? Well, the answer is no mystery. The most revealing case, I think, is Italy. Chillingly, Italy has just announced it is going to take a census of its gypsies, while Salvini said he regrets not being able to deport them.

But he did not come out of nowhere. His party, the Lega, won almost six million votes in March, and his rhetoric clearly resonates with many ordinary Italians. And even though last year saw numbers fall, almost , people made the perilous sea journey, a figure unthinkable only a decade ago.

Given the ferocity of the public backlash, you might have expected the Italian government to close its borders. But like 25 other European countries, Italy is part of the Schengen area, in which border controls were sacrificed in the name of freedom of movement. Of course, free movement is a noble principle. Who can fail to be moved by the idea of a happy, harmonious Europe, in which our children travel at will, learning languages and making friends?

All too often, however, the reality looks more like the Jungle, the notoriously squalid migrant camp at Calais, where tens of thousands of desperate people waited and hoped to find a way to cross the Channel.

Yet even now Mrs Merkel insists that free movement simply cannot be questioned. In November , for example, she ruled out allowing Britain to have access to the single market unless we accepted freedom of movement.

The truth, of course, is that they see it as a quasi-religious principle, an unshakeable pillar of their world-view. You might see it as the product of its time, to be amended or superseded when history moves on. That strikes me as suicidally self-defeating. If you want to survive, you change with them. And if the leaders of the EU think they are a special case, they are even more deluded than I thought.

The Treaty of Rome was written in a world that has vanished, in which nobody imagined that literally millions of people would brave the waters of the Mediterranean to build new lives in Munich, Malmo and Manchester. From the 18 million Britons who voted for Brexit to the millions of Italians, Hungarians and Greeks who bridle at being lectured from Brussels, most Europeans are profoundly sceptical about the idea of a post-national future.

And when Mrs Merkel claims that the alternative would be the walls and fences of the Cold War, she is showing her age. The Berlin Wall, which blighted her childhood, fell almost 30 years ago. It is not coming back. Indeed, instead of looking backwards, Mrs Merkel should be looking ahead, not to some rose-tinted federalist Utopia, but to a more realistic future that is bound to involve considerable international unrest and redoubled public anxiety.

How would the EU cope with yet another influx of millions of refugees? All of this might sound obvious. Though I voted Remain, I am heartily sick of the stridency and snobbery of those Euro-enthusiasts who refuse to yield with good grace to the wishes of the majority.

She believes we should stay in the single market and customs union, which means retaining freedom of movement. Still, all this is immensely revealing. In this respect, immigration is both an issue in itself and a symbol of something deeper. To voters in places like Hungary, occupied by the Red Army in and which endured decades beneath the Soviet jackboot, it has come to symbolise loss of national sovereignty and imposition of foreign rule.

The irony is if the EU leaders really wanted to preserve the principle of freedom of movement, they would be advised to reform it now. Where will it end? I fear with more fences, walls, camps and cages. With more populist posturing and racist rabble-rousing, a continent splintered into factions and a dream of unity smashed to pieces.

In other words, the destruction of the very values the EU is supposed to represent. In politics, as in other walks of life, you pay a high price for hubris, complacency and a refusal to change. Share or comment on this article:

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