Yes we can! (Photo: amazon.de)
The reluctant promised land
Yes we can! Barack Obama famously used this slogan in his 2008 election campaign and managed to gather a huge momentum. Exactly one year ago Angela Merkel joined the Bob the Builder club and declared “Wir schaffen das!” at the government’s summer press conference. Both sentences were supposed to unite, yet neither achieved their goals. The divide between Democrats and Republicans is getting increasingly out of control. And German (and European) public opinion has never been more split. The first 10 years of Merkel’s chancellorship stood for security, stability and continuity. Her coalition governments managed to weather the financial crisis relatively well. Unlike the UK, Spain, France and Russia, there were no major terrorist attacks. Unemployment has decreased and the economy is growing.
The federal budget is balanced (even though other factors have played a considerable role, e.g. the negative interest rates on government bonds). She was never seen as a controversial politician and always enjoyed high approval rates.
Her appropriation of the antinuclear power movement can be viewed as a classic Merkelian policy move. Merkel and the CDU had traditionally been pro-nuclear power and had opposed the “nuclear exit” decided upon by the SPD Green coalition government in 2000 - at the time a highly controversial decision. In 2010, the liberal conservative government extended the operating time of various nuclear power plants. However, after the Fukushima nuclear disaster Merkel’s administration made a 180 degree turn and the 7 oldest nuclear power plants were taken off the grid immediately for safety checks. In July 2011, the government decided that 8 nuclear power plants were to be finally switched off and a complete “nuclear exit” to be achieved by 2022. What used to be a niche policy demand had now become mainstream - with the backing of all parties in the Bundestag and the majority of the German population.
It is pretty likely that Merkel assumed the same would happen during the refugee crisis. According to one government aide, Merkel had always insisted that the German public would not accept the chaotic scenes of the Calais Jungle or the Hungarian border at the German-Austrian border. In August 2015, the refugee crisis had already dominated the news for the last months and most Germans were familiar with the catastrophic situation in Syria and the humanitarian crisis at Budapest’s Keleti railway station. However, a mysterious tweet by the federal refugee agency (BAMF) triggered the refugee crisis to - what Merkel’s critics claim - get out of control. 134 characters. “The #Dublin procedure for Syrian citizens is at this point in time effectively no longer being adhered to”. While it didn’t go viral on Twitter, the message was spread widely on Facebook and Whatsapp. The significance of the Tweet was hugely inflated by both refugees and anti-refugee forces. Many Syrians saw it as a personal invitation by the Chancellor. Other refugees saw it as an encouragement to discard their passports and enter Germany as Syrian refugees. What exactly happened is unclear but it is fair to say that the actions made by the German government encouraged hundreds of thousands to follow. While only 300,000 asylum seekers entered Germany until the end of August (already a record high), 800,000 followed in the next 4 months. The tweet alone didn’t bring the refugee crisis to Germany. According to the weekly newspaper Die Zeit, inspired by the rumours surrounding the tweet, two Syrian refugees stranded at Keleti station decided to march towards the Austrian border. They managed to convince thousands of others to join them and - creating a huge media hype - marched on the Budapest-Vienna motorway determined to reach Germany. They were followed by numerous journalists and with them the German and Austrian public. Merkel reasoned that they could only be halted by force and feared that violence by the Austrian and German border forces - including deaths - would not be tolerated by the German public. So she decided - together with the Austrian chancellor - that they should be allowed to enter Germany via Austria. The two Syrians managed to create a precedent and their path was quickly widely known as the “Balkan route”. A lot has been written about the initial “welcome culture” that quickly turned into a more fearful debate on integration, Islamophobia, and Burqas. Merkel’s popularity rating dwindled and the AfD seized the chance to position itself as the only anti-immigration and nativist political force in the country.
Merkel’s opponents criticize her for her “alternativlose Politik” (politics without alternatives) The AfD even included this notion in their party name - initially to criticise the government’s Greece policy but increasingly in opposition to the refugee policy or in their words “Asylchaos” (asylum chaos). While the approval ratings of Merkel and the government’s refugee policy suggested a landslide victory for the populists, they never really succeed outside of the eastern states. In March 2016, the AfD managed to win 15.1% of the votes in Baden Württemberg, yet 81% voted for parties in support of the refugee policy. The Green Party managed to come first with 30.3% of vote (although with a more “realist” stance than the party at the federal level). Further, in January 2016, Frauke Petry, the AfD party chief, started a shitstorm when she claimed in an interview that police should shoot at refugees attempting to illegally enter the country. So was Merkel right to suggest that violent scenes - and possibly deaths - at the German border would cause a huge public outcry?
But more importantly, despite Merkel’s low approval rating, German’s still have an immense trust in state institutions, the rule of law and the constitution. Ironically the latter two restrict the possibilities of the government immensely. According to article 16 of the Grundgesetz, Germany’s constitution, all political refugees entering Germany from outside the European Union or a “safe third country” are able to seek asylum status in the country. Because Germany is surrounded by EU members and “safe third countries” countries and refugees cannot fly into the EU (as airlines face huge fines), legally speaking, it is impossible to seek asylum in Germany. The constitution isn’t written this way to keep refugees out but is simply a relict of the Cold War when Germany was still divided. Further, the Dublin agreement regulates that refugees must seek asylum in the first member state they entered, i.e. Greece or Italy. To complicate matters, the German high court (Verfassungsgericht) has decided on several occasions that the Dublin agreement is not valid for refugees entering the union from Greece and Hungary, as their asylum process systems are deemed to be catastrophic and do not meet the strict German standards. On other occasions the high court has also halted deportations of refugees to “unsafe third countries”, stating that they might face the death penalty.
So in reality the only way “to get back control” is through a common EU solution, assuming that rebuilding fences throughout the EU, abolishing the Schengen area and using force to keep refugees outside of Europe are undesirable and unfeasible (despite all the Trumps, Farages and Petrys of the world claiming the opposite). However, most EU countries are opposed to an EU wide deal (especially considering that Germany ignored Italy’s struggles with refugees for such a long time) and European unity has suffered tremendously in the last year. Austria and Sweden, who also accepted thousands of refugees have since closed their borders, severely restricted their asylum laws and publicly stated their 180 degree turn (hoping that it will deter refugees from entering the country). Merkel knows that her government’s refugee policy is still popular amongst a large portion of the German public. To appease her critics she has restricted asylum benefits (e.g. decreasing benefits, restricting family reunions) and made a deal with Turkey to decrease the number of refugees entering Schengen area. Yet this is not enough to convince her critics, who demand monthly refugee limits, harsher punishments for those unwilling to integrate and increased deportations of failed asylum seekers. The first is impossible to implement as it violates article 16 of the constitution. The latter is severely restricted by high court rulings and the unwillingness of the countries of origin to accept their citizens. The “Turkey deal” has already tremendously reduced the amount of refugees entering Germany. The BAMF is expecting that only 300,000 asylum seekers will enter the country in 2016 - a huge decrease compared to 2015.
This also highlights Merkel’s massive misjudgement of what she thought was merely a solution to a single humanitarian crisis in the centre of an EU capital. It was viewed by millions of refugees and many Europeans as an invitation to come to Germany. Of course Merkel’s government also intervened too late to restrict the numbers of refugees arriving in the country and relied on other EU countries to show solidarity. Germany was simply not prepared to host over a million refugees in one year. Many entered the country without ever being registered. Only around 50% are actually legitimate refugees and will eventually receive asylum. The rest await deportation or are tolerated to stay under certain conditions. Yet only 20,000 economic migrants were deported last year (mostly to the Balkan states). Two tolerated refugees (who were supposed to be deported) committed IS inspired terrorist attacks in Ansbach and Würzburg. 68 refugees were amongst the mob that sexually assaulted hundreds of women during the Cologne new year's eve celebrations A stark contrast to Merkel’s promise of stability, safety and continuity.
Despite Merkel’s critics, such as Viktor Orban, claiming the refugee crisis is a German problem that can be answered with singular national solutions, reality is more complex. The West, Russia and other regional powers have shamefully watched the Syrian civil war completely escalate over the last few years. Several European states intervened in Libya after a popular uprising inspired by events in Tunisia, but failed utterly failed the country in the aftermath. The resulting civil war left the country split and the power vacuum was quickly seized by Islamic insurgents - with larger consequences for the entire region, such as the ongoing conflict in Mali. The Dublin agreement has outsourced the responsibility for implementing the Geneva Refugee Convention to the southern border states and Germany was slow to show any solidarity in the past.
Austerity policies at home and abroad are also to blame. Merkel’s coalition governments have cut spending on security forces (including Frontex), the federal refugee agency (BAMF), integration efforts, development assistance and humanitarian aid. Since 1998 the number of policemen has been reduced by 16,000. Frontex, the agency in charge of protecting European borders, is severely understaffed. Western states have repeatedly failed to actually pay pledged money to UN organisations. In June 2015, UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, faced a funding gap of US$3.47 billion and was unable to provide basic services, including food and education. Even at the height of the refugee crisis, donors failed to transfer pledged funds to the UNHCR. Instead of adequately funding refugee camps in Syria’s neighbourhood (at a much lower cost than in western Europe), the West basically forced hundreds of thousands of Syrians to make the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean to Europe.
So did Germany manage to do “it”? There is no straightforward answer. At an organisational level the “mission” was more or less accomplished. Only time will show if the immense integration efforts will any results. The country has learned a lot from past waves of immigration. Those who are granted asylum status or who are thought to have high chances at obtaining it (the application status still takes way too much time and hundreds of thousands haven't even officially applied yet) are offered integration and language courses. The overwhelming majority is extremely eager to start working and contribute to society (and in many instances pay their debts for coming to Europe). Yet there are only very few jobs that require no education or formal qualifications. Around 25% of the refugees have never attended a school before. Educational institutions (with some exceptions) in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan are far away from the German standard. Experts predict that it will take roughly 10 years for 50% of the refugees to find jobs. Many might never be able to be fully integrated in the job market. Many have also never left their country/region before coming to Germany and are unfamiliar with liberal Western values. There is a huge anti-semitism, homophobia and misogyny problem amongst some of those who arrived last year. Integration isn’t a one way street. But focussing on banning Burqas, Burkinis, preaching in Arabic or even backpacks (!) cannot be the answer of a tolerant and multicultural society.
While Merkel might not have publicly announced a policy change, she did confirm in a meeting that her government will not repeat a 2015 style open-door policy and highlighted that the main task of the government is to “repatriate, repatriate and again repatriate” migrants who do not qualify for asylum. This might not be the drastic turn the leaders of Sweden and Austria chose to use but it will definitely have the same effect - making Germany less attractive to economic migrants, pleasing anti-migrant forces in her party and the general population as well as preventing the AfD from winning the upcoming elections in Mecklenburg Vorpommern. However, it also highlights that a more humane refugee policy (e.g. creating safe passages for a limited amount of legitimate refugees and swift asylum processes), combined with intensified external EU border policing, strict deportation of free riders, appropriate UNHCR funding, an international effort to stop the war in Syria and a common EU development strategy for the Middle East and Africa could have easily prevented the refugee crisis from reaching this extent. Germany and other northern European countries - especially the UK - have shamelessly pointed at the Dublin Agreement to keep out refugees in the past instead of answering calls for solidarity. A European solution to the crisis would have had to require a consensual effort from the beginning. Instead, Merkel appealed to Europe’s moral obligation and European solidarity - but only after she knew (which turned out to be a misjudgement) she had a majority of the German population behind her (4 years after the Syrian civil war had started). And when she realised that her paradigm shift was not supported by the majority of the German population anymore she quickly turned back to a policy of deterrence. Humanist Realpolitik? Or Merkelian Realpolitik? Or rather Merkelian Humanism?
Unlike with Merkel's clean energy paradigm shift, the government and business leaders were never completely honest with the public in the beginning of the refugee crisis. Everybody knew that the "Energiewende" ("energy transition") was a costly long term endeavour. Dieter Zetsche, CEO of Daimler, claimed it was the foundation of an "economic miracle". One year later the 30 biggest stock listed companies employ far less than 100 refugees. Prominent politicians considerably downplayed the economic costs of accommodating and integrating refugees. In September 2015, it was suggested that most of the refugees were doctors, engineers and academics. The discussion created a highly morally charged environment that only distinguished between those wanting to close the borders (i.e. racists) and those welcoming refugees. Obviously expectations were crushed. Those fleeing conflicts turned out to be Mr. and Mrs. Average, including a tiny minority of criminals, rapists and terrorists. Nevertheless it is quite admirable that Merkel chose to solve a humanitarian crisis in the middle of Hungary by welcoming those fleeing the conflict in Syria. She might have misjudged the pull factor that gesture created, including hundreds of thousands of economic migrants trying their luck. However, closing and defending the border (with a beautiful wall?) would have triggered similar or even worse reactions. The state of exception might have lasted for too long. Germany could have helped Greece and Italy dealing with the huge influx of migrants and refugees in the last decade. The German government could have pushed for an EU wide refugee solution long before it escalated instead of insisting on the unfair Dublin Agreement. Refugee camps in the Middle East could have been adequately funded. In the end it was the choice between an open-border chaos or a deterrence chaos. Merkel could only lose.