A smart or a bold move: how Merkel dealt with the refugee crisis

Ying Zang, MPP

Ying Zang is a Master of Public Policy student in UCD. This blog was written for POL40160 Comparative Public Policy. The best blogs from this module were selected to enable talented graduate students in UCD to contribute to ongoing debates about contemporary policy issues affecting European societies. 

Ever since the Syrian refugee crisis erupted in the summer of 2015, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-door stance on refugees has been controversial, not only internationally but also domestically. At first, Germans gathered at train stations to welcome refugees arriving in their cities as if they were long-lost friends. Refugees were greeted with rounds of applause and songs, as well as sweets, pastries, and toys, on station platforms across the country. Germany stopped enforcing the EU’s ‘Dublin’ rules, under which asylum seekers should register in the first member state they arrive in: Merkel made her dramatic declaration that any Syrian who reaches the country could claim asylum in Germany. Merkel also appealed for a common action of EU member states to cope with the crisis. She has said that EU states ‘must share the responsibility for refugees seeking asylum…. If Europe fails on the question of refugees, this close connection with universal civil rights … it won’t be the Europe we want.’ She pressed for quotas to spread asylum-seekers out among more countries in the 28-nation grouping.

It is not easy to figure out the number of the refugees who may have been inspired by Merkel’s compassionate behaviors to escape from war-torn homelands. However, it would not have been hard to predict that she would encounter growing pushback for the policy she has stuck to. Anti-refugee protests and crimes against refugees started to happen more frequently. Public support for her and her party, CDU (Christian Democratic Union), dropped dramatically. Fellow-politicians in her own camp expressed open disagreement with her policy. Politicians of some other European countries politicians have harshly criticized her.

In considering these adverse effects on Germany as well as herself, it seems difficult to understand why she would adopt such a policy. There are two main lines of speculation about the drivers of her policy choice. The more popular one is that this is the result of a generosity inspired by history. In Merkel’s own words, Germany as Europe’s top economic power has a ‘moral and political’ duty to help desperate people, particularly in current times those from war-ravaged Syria. This may have a two-fold meaning. Firstly, it may ben seen as an act of redemption. After WWII, Germany has tried as hard as possible to repent for its Nazi past. It has paid hundreds of billions of dollars in reparations and foreign aid. Provision of shelter to people from war-torn areas is another act of atonement for its misdeeds in wartime. Secondly, Germany has a long tradition of welcoming refugees. After WWII, Germany took in 13 million displaced persons and refugees fleeing west from eastern Europe when the region came under Soviet domination. Germany has long prided itself on it Willkommenskultur. But a more persuasive speculation might be that Germany is trying to reset its negative image as a harsh and heartless overlord in its efforts to impose financial discipline on its European neighbours. The refugee crisis provided a perfect chance for Merkel to divert attention from the economic and political mess the European Union had become.

No matter which of these speculations is closer to the truth, what Merkel did was laudable, even though her refugee policy has not come without compromise. From the all-are-welcome policy of last summer to the border control deal with Turkey this spring, Germany, at least, assumes an image of a responsible great power that endeavours to find a solution to the crisis. But in either case, Merkel is walking a tightrope. The former policy commitment depends on unlimited resources, while the latter depends heavily on Turkey’s compliance, which is especially unreliable under Erdoğan’s increasingly authoritarian rule. So, was Merkel’s action based on deliberate calculus about how best to shape the wider European response toward a resolution, or an audacious act of compassion that may yet carry uncontrollable political costs? This can only be judged on the basis of the outcome of the refugee crisis, and it will on the answers to following questions:

  1. Will Merkel be strong enough to hold onto power until the crisis is resolved?

With the number of refugees soaring in Germany, the humanitarian enthusiasm of the German public was taken over by growing concern and rising anti-immigrant sentiment. Does Germany possess enough resources to cope with it? Will new immigrants be grateful for what Germany has done? Will there be no cultural conflicts? Will they get integrated smoothly into the society without imposing any threat to the cultural integrity and social security? The attacks in Cologne at New Year crystallized those challenges. Actually, the number of attacks against refugee centres increased significantly within the past year. Over 200 cases of hate crimes such as arson, vandalism, and violence, were reported within a matter of months, and the trend has continued. As CNN reported, every Monday evening in Dresden, thousands gathered in front of the city’s Opera House to stop refugees and migrants from coming to Germany. Similar protests were organized in other cities too.

The strongest signal of hostility toward the status quo is the precipitous rise of an anti-refugee political party, the Alternative for Germany (AfD). It shook up Germany’s political landscape with dramatic gains at regional elections on March 13, entering state parliament for the first time. In contrast to AfD’s victory, Merkel’s Christian Democrat party suffered painful defeats in two out of three states, including Baden-Württemberg, a region dominated by the CDU since the end of WWII.

A poll conducted by ARD Deutschlandtrend at the end of January suggested that 81% of Germans think the refugee crisis ‘out of control’ under Merkel’s government. Merkel’s personal popularity ratings had dropped to 33% in April 2016, the lowest in five years. It may yet be too early to assert that she will survive the refugee crisis as the Chancellor.

  1. Will other EU members act as she wishes?

Not all EU member states sympathize with Merkel’s policies, whether carried out in Germany or pursued in the EU. Italian politicians have harshly criticized her negligent attitude regarding the necessary procedures for the reception of refugees. Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka believes that Merkel, in fact, provoked a wave of illegal immigration by inviting refugees to Europe. Hungary accused Berlin of creating confusion with her leniency towards Syrians. PM Viktor Orbán asserts that the influx of Muslim refugees poses a threat to Europe’s Christian identity, and he regards the refugee crisis as ‘a German problem’. Hungary has been carrying out hard-line policies since the crisis erupted in mid-2015. An on-off approach was adopted at Budapest’s Keleti railway station, and four-meter high fences were built on its southern border with Serbia to try to stop refugees coming across the Balkans. Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and Poland have sought to block the influx of refugees as well. Britain’s record remains particularly discouraging, the government having announced that only 1,000 Syrians would be granted asylum (even before Cameron lost the Brexit referendum).

Actually, Europe’s largest countries are not only dissatisfied with Germany’s refugee policies, they are increasingly dissatisfied with Germany’s dominant status in the EU, particularly since the financial crisis. Some blamed Germany for the suffering of the Southern Europe. Even though the EU has reached an agreement to fund Turkey for dealing with refugees, it would be more than a little naive to assume that all EU member states will follow the Germany’s lead and readily take assume humanitarian responsibility in tackling the refugee crisis.

  1. Will Turkey behave as she wishes?

Turkey is Syria’s neighbour, and is the first transit point for refugees fleeing to the continent of Europe. In order to block off the route that brought more than 800,000 refugees to Greece from Turkey last year, and in order to outsource Europe’s biggest refugee emergency to Turkey, Merkel led efforts to forge a migrant deal between the EU and Turkey. To her great relief, the 28 members agreed on a proposal and Turkey accepted it. Under this deal, Turkey is committed to taking back any asylum seekers who land in Greece, with effect from April 4. However, this deal was not achieved without a price. The EU promised to give Ankara €6bn to help Syrians now stuck on Turkish soil. European visa policy would become less restrictive for Turks. The EU committed to engaging more actively with Turkey in its application to become a member state. In addition, Europe promised to accept one Syrian living in a Turkish camp in exchange for each Syrian returned to Turkey.

However, Turkey’s suppression of the media has intensified in recent years, accusations of diverse human rights abuses increased, and a rising trend towards dictatorship has been noted. Even prior to the crackdown in the wake of the recent coup attempt, these traits have been among the major obstacles to Turkey’s accession to the EU. If Turkey keeps doing things its own way, the strain on Merkel’s deal with Erdoğan can only increase. An early indication that Erdoğan did not intend to make things easy for her came when Turkey’s foreign ministry called in Germany’s envoy to Ankara to explain an NDR broadcast that mocked Erdoğan, a very uncomfortable experience for Merkel.

The aftermath of the coup attempt raises the stakes about how far Turkey will go in compromising human rights, and how committed Erdoğan will be to implementing the refugee agreement. It is far from clear what the reaction may be of the refugees who are supposed to be deported. The refugee problem may be less visible in Europe now, but the pressure is still intense. Whatever the outcome, it is likely that Merkel will be the seen as the one to blame.

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