Can Europe Make It?

Eyes wide shut – Germany, the immigration crisis and Merkel’s winter of discontent

Rarely has a democratic country moved so rapidly from seemingly perfect political stability to a widespread feeling of crisis, confusion and near chaos as Germany has done over the past six months.

Ronald G. Asch
26 November 2015

Demotix/Goncalvo Silva. All rights reserved.Rarely has a democratic country moved so rapidly from seemingly perfect political stability and a state of almost smug contentedness to a widespread feeling of crisis, confusion and near chaos as Germany has done over the past six months. While Merkel was still acclaimed at the beginning of this year as one of the most powerful politicians of the world (though perhaps not the most popular one, in countries such as Greece or Italy), and was widely praised as a woman of astute judgement and great self restraint, unrattled even in the worst of crises, she now seems to be totally out of her depth. A helpless feel good rhetoric designed to calm a bunch of unruly children but not to convince grown up citizens that there is nothing to worry about reveals her loss of grip almost every day.

There is no convincing answer in Germany to the imminent threat of terrorism – admittedly it is difficult to give such an answer but the German government seems to be particularly helpless at present - and the fact that anybody whoever he may be and whatever his intentions are can cross the German borders without being properly controlled or registered and settle anywhere in the country - if he wishes so anonymously - is hardly reassuring under present circumstances.

The supposed control of the EU’s outward borders by countries such as Greece and Italy has never worked properly – admittedly maritime frontiers have always been very difficult to police - and has broken down totally over the last year. Even if one assumes that the vast majority of refugees actually run away not just from poverty and war but also from extremism and terrorism – there is little reason to assume anything else for the time being – this is a cause for concern.

The real problem, however, is that many of the immigrants arriving in Germany will discover that it is by no means as easy as they thought to find work and be successful in economic terms. If they remain marginalized, living in poverty in makeshift settlements or urban ghettos without any hope to find a reasonably well paid job – or any job at all - they may well become as disaffected as the young men in the derelict suburbs of French and Belgian cities have become.

And such suburbs no matter whether they are called Saint Denis or Molenbeek provide an ideal breeding ground not just for normal petty and not so petty crime but also eventually for terrorism and ultimately perhaps even for a permanent conflict which may at times appear almost as a kind of low key civil war as it does in France.

So the obvious solution would be to curb the influx of immigrants and refugees. Restricting immigration is in fact the policy which Britain and other countries such as Denmark or Hungary are following at the moment, admittedly in a way which often seems rather heartless and sometimes, in particular in the case of countries in East Central Europe, openly racist.

One also has to admit that these governments only get away with their restrictive immigration policies because refugees have a choice; if they are rejected by other countries they can still go to Germany, where they can safely expect to be housed, where they will be entitled to comparatively generous welfare benefits and health care and will be permitted to work after a fairly short time (if they can find a job).

If Germany were to pursue a more restrictive policy as well it would be far less easy for her neighbours to turn away refugees, that is certain. It is unfair to assume – as is often done outside Germany -  that a million or more refugees from Syria, Iraq and other places only came to Europe because Chancellor Merkel at one point allowed a couple of thousand refugees stranded in Hungary to cross the border and seek asylum in Germany.

The Dublin III rules had broken down much earlier. They had always been unrealistic. Why should Greece and Italy deal with the problem of mass immigration alone? Had there been a quota system of allocating immigrants and refugees on an equitable basis across Europe they might have been prepared to abide by the letter of the law and register every immigrant coming to Europe, but as such a system does not exist they understandably concentrated instead on sending them on to other countries, many of them without ever having been registered.

Germany and other Northern governments silently accepted this breakdown of the Dublin III rules early on. This was probably a mistake, they should have asked for a fixed quota system at a time when the overall number of refugees was still much lower. It would have been much easier to reach some sort of agreement under such conditions than now. 

The German ‘Willkommenskultur’

But this opportunity was missed. Instead the political class in Germany – Merkel was only the voice of almost the entire political and economic elite -  sent out the message to the global community long before the crisis in Hungary that basically everybody (not just refugees in the traditional sense of the word but economic migrants as well who are in practice not that easy to distinguish from refugees anyhow) coming to Germany would be welcome, and would be given every possible help to build a new life there – the famous culture of welcome (Willkommenskultur).

No very serious attempts would be made to send anybody back to where he came from, something which, given the complicated legal procedures in Germany and the fact that many migrants have no papers, would have been quite difficult anyhow, as one has to admit. Nevertheless, this was probably the point where matters went wrong, long before the crisis in Hungary.

The political left (SPD, Grüne, Die Linke) governing most German Länder (and the Länder are responsible for immigrants at the administrative level and for deporting them if needs be) was in favour of such a policy of open borders partly for moral reasons – the human tragedy in countries such as Syria or Iraq and the economic misery in many other parts of the world are difficult to ignore -  but also because it hopes to do away once and for all with all traces of the old, narrow nation state replacing it with a perfect post national, multicultural society.

Big business was perhaps even more strongly in favour because Germany is facing a demographic crisis; more immigrants mean that there will be, or so it seems, an ample supply of cheap labour and in particular of skilled factory workers. Those who are not sufficiently skilled or who are otherwise unemployable can be left to the care of the welfare state without further ado, so this seemed to be a sensible arrangement from industry’s point of view.

Nobody – apart perhaps from some experts nobody listened to -  however had really anticipated that instead of 200.000 or 300.000 men and women a million people or even more (some estimates assume a figure of 1.5 million for 2015) would come within a year with the prospect of further millions arriving over the next years. 

The consensus on immigration breaks down

As the Mayor of Tübingen, Boris Palmer, a politician of the Green party, and a somewhat flamboyant figure, has pointed out recently Germany is indeed, if needs be, able to house and feed up to 10 million refugees and immigrants or even more over the next couple of years. But can these people be integrated in any meaningful sense in the foreseeable future so that they have, for example, sufficient access to the job market? Palmer like a number of other critics of government policy is doubtful about this and for good reasons. The speed marking the immigration process and the numbers involved are just too high.

It seems increasingly unlikely that this unplanned experiment in virtually unlimited mass immigration will end well. The strains are just too great and they will become even greater over the next two or three years if the government proves unable to bring the numbers down to a reasonable level, let us say half a million immigrants each year at most.  However, Merkel has made it clear in the past that ‘the lady is not for turning’.

Any serious attempts to make Germany less attractive for immigrants or to introduce a quota system for refugees demanding protection under the Geneva convention (limiting the numbers to a fixed maximum, provided that the refugees’ physical survival is not in danger in the countries where they have found provisional shelter before starting on their journey to Germany) are either openly rejected by her or so thoroughly watered down that they become meaningless.

At least this was true until one or two or weeks ago and only in the most recent past are there ever so small signs that she may buckle under pressure from her own party, but her basic attitude remains the same, if immigration can be limited at all this is the task of the EU, not of the German government. Somebody may have to do the dirty work but it is definitely not going to be her. 

Is Merkel a misguided idealist?

Why has Merkel taken this stance? She may be afraid that a stricter immigration policy will lead to the end of the coalition with the SPD which so far has always pleaded for a policy of open borders whatever the rank and file of the party may think about this (many SPD politicians governing local communities certainly have misgivings about such a policy).

She may also fear that an attack on the right of asylum which for many people among the ‘progressive’ middle classes voting for the Greens is perhaps the most sacred part of the German constitution, in fact it’s essential cornerstone and palladium, will make it impossible to forge the hoped for coalition with the Greens in 2017 (her real master plan).

Or she may feel that in the twenty-first century and within a highly mobile global society all attempts to curb immigration are futile or would require a degree of brutality which is rightly seen as unacceptable in Europe (as opposed to Australia for example) so that one better accepts the immigration which one cannot control or steer anyhow and tries to make the most of it by doing everything to integrate immigrants at an early stage.

Some critics also see her attitude as an attempt to demonstrate once and for all German moral superiority - and dispel the shadows of a past marked by terrible crimes against humanity - by offering generous and even unlimited help to people in need.

Wouldn’t that be the great and final atonement for Auschwitz, an atonement which has always been at the heart of left wing politics in Germany? Merkel does belong to the left wing of her party and may be at heart when human rights are concerned something of a Protestant moralist – these days the Protestant church in Germany pursues very much a left of centre or Green party agenda -  but does she really think like that? That seems unlikely. 

Will Merkel survive the crisis as chancellor?

For the time being Merkel still tries to persuade her European partners to agree to a joint European solution which would diminish the burden Germany has to bear through a quota system which would distribute refugees across the EU, without however necessarily limiting the overall number. However, it seems more unlikely than ever that this is a realistic option, in fact one has to live in a fantasy world to believe in such a solution. German, Austrian and Swedish politicians can jump up and down until they are blue in the face, but this will all be to no avail.

Britain and most Eastern European countries are boycotting a quota system anyway but even in the case of France it has now become almost inconceivable that the government would be prepared to accept between 5.000 and 10.000 new immigrants every week (these would be the figures one probably has to deal with) after the recent events in Paris. The issue is far too contentious in France and the situation too explosive.

What is more even Sweden, which so far had always pursued a liberal immigration policy is now about to close her doors. Even if new agreements were signed, would they be respected and implemented? The past has shown that solemn agreements all too easily become mere waste paper in the EU in moments of crisis and that there is  no one willing to enforce them or even capable of doing so.

Thus Germany in all likelihood will have to deal with the refugee crisis more than ever on her own in 2016, in splendid or not so splendid isolation, without much real support from other European countries. It is hard to see how the country can cope with another two or three million immigrants next year, finding suitable accommodation has already become quite difficult.

And these are the figures we are talking about as many of those who have come this year will want to bring their wives and children to Germany for perfectly good reasons, and as people in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but also in Egypt and Tunisia for example now have discovered Germany as the true country of their dreams as well – they may not all be classical refugees but they are entitled to submit a request for receiving asylum and few people who have done so are ever sent away, most stay for good.

Admittedly the right to bring one’s family was about to be curtailed recently, but apart from the fact that the SPD withdrew their consent to these measures for the time being, it is difficult to predict how such new rules will work out in practice and whether Karlsruhe (the German Supreme Court) or Strasbourg (the European Court of Human Rights) will accept these reforms remains very much an open question.

If nothing fairly drastic is being done over the next three or four months, the situation will become increasingly explosive, in particular as society in Germany as in other European countries is by no means marked by universal prosperity, despite the fact that unemployment is low and per capita income much higher than in, say, southern Italy.

There are many people who see themselves as ‘left behind’: this includes a large section of the population in the East, resentful of their seemingly underprivileged position within the united Germany anyhow, but also people on low wages or retired employees and workers with a barely sufficient pension and small savings that are being further eroded every month by the policies which Mario Draghi in his wisdom is imposing on the Eurozone.

How will these people react when they find themselves competing with immigrants for benefits and health care, for jobs and affordable housing? And the immigrants are not always meek and humble,  they want their dreams to become true in the here and now, not in some distant future, and are prepared to fight for such hopes, encouraged in their struggle by various lobby groups and political movements within Germany and in fact by the government itself.

In the East the atmosphere has already turned sour, if not positively poisonous, but soon the same climate of resentment and anger may prevail in the West too, at least among some sections of the population, perhaps not a majority yet, but numerous enough to create trouble.

The AfD which is now after the exit of the moderates the equivalent of UKIP in Britain (or perhaps even of the FPÖ in Austria) would according to recent polls win up to 8 or 10 % of the popular vote at a general election, people in the East are taking to the streets to protest against immigration, and the number of violent attacks on homes or shelters for refugees is increasing rapidly.

Unrest within the major governing party, the CDU/CSU, which until a few years ago strongly rejected – under Merkel’s leadership and with her full endorsement – the very idea of a multicultural society shaped by permanent immigration, is also clearly growing. But in an attitude which may be marked both by stubbornness and deep moral contempt for her critics but perhaps also by the first signs of creeping despair, Merkel is still insisting that her formula ‘Wir schaffen das’ (we can make a success of this) remains fully valid although most voters are no longer inclined to believe her, however much they may still respect her leadership in other areas.

The terrorist attacks in Paris may have bolstered her support once more to a certain extent because many Germans are looking for a leader they can trust and who will protect them and faute de mieux ‘mother’ Merkel seems the only politician who can play this role. But whether this will be enough in the long run to prevent the erosion of her authority, is a different matter. 

Her real strength is the fact that she has seen to it that in her own party she has no real rival. The minister of defence Ursula von der Leyen is even more a representative of the left wing of the party than the chancellor herself and other possible competitors (in particular the male ones) have either in frustration quit politics altogether or been put out to grass, such as David McAllister the former Prime minister of Lower Saxony who was sent to Brussels, to the European Parliament.

He would otherwise be ideally qualified to play the role of a German John Major, not a strong character but widely acceptable, if Merkel has to resign. For the moment, the possible leaders of a coup against Merkel such as the Bavarian Prime minister Seehofer or the somewhat lugubrious minister of finance, Mr. Schäuble, have become more cautious again and have called off their rebellion.

Nevertheless, when Merkel gave a speech to the CSU party conference in Bavaria, Seehofer publicly humiliated her. In a long comment lasting more than 15 minutes he berated the chancellor for her misguided immigration policy. Merkel, standing next to him, looked like a schoolgirl being told by her teacher in front of the class that the homework she had submitted was just not good enough.

Moreover there is still the home secretary, the visibly exasperated and care worn Thomas de Maiziere, the type of politician whose less than truly vivacious manner some people might compare to that of a dead sheep. But as we know there is nothing more to be feared than to be the attacked by such a man once he overcomes his phlegma. De Maiziere may still pose a risk in the same way as Sir Geoffrey Howe did when he resigned from cabinet under Thatcher.

No solution in sight 

In the last resort, however, the SPD, Merkel’s coalition partner, will not stand for it. On the one hand Merkel, for the time being, is the best Labour party chancellor SPD politicians ever had, having adopted most policies the SPD tries to promote, on the other hand they probably hope for a slow but terminal erosion of Merkel’s prestige and power so that they have a chance to win the 2017 election after all in some way or other. Ideally the CDU would eventually fall apart because of a revolt against Merkel’s policies.

Thus some SPD leaders exclaim again and again that the number of refugees needs to be limited but block any measures which might serve this purpose – pointing out that the EU will very soon solve the problem for Germany. They will know that this is unrealistic but this is a good way to fuel the conflict within the CDU and the CSU and so politically a clever strategy.

However any attempt to replace Merkel now – for the SPD a lingering political crisis of authority is much better than Merkel’s sudden and premature demise -  would be resisted by the SPD and would therefore cause the end of the coalition. In new elections many CDU MPs would lose their seats, which will concentrate their minds wonderfully when thinking about a revolt against Merkel. So in all likelihood Merkel will hang on.

She will continue to do in the immigration crisis, what she has always been best at, kicking the can down the road and hope for the problems either to go away for good or to return much later to plague her successor. In the Euro crisis this seemed to be the ideal policy, it was certainly the policy pursued by most other European politicians, and after all what is the EU all about in moments of real crisis? Kicking the can down the road. 

Matters are different this time around however. Problems will neither go way nor can they simply be explained away by the soothing but often also quite vacuous rhetoric Merkel is so good at. She now gives the impression of a person trying to find her way in total darkness, groping about without much sense of direction, or is it only so dark because she refuses to open her eyes?

Her best chance of containing the crisis at the moment is perhaps to win the support of Balkan countries such as Serbia and Macedonia so that they close their borders at least to certain categories of immigrants as they seem to be doing even at this very moment. Enough cash might be sufficient to do the trick; but it would be much more important to establish some sort of cooperation with Erdogan’s Turkey and here the price Germany and the EU would have to pay not just in financial but even more so in political terms will be extremely high.

It remains therefore more than uncertain whether Turkey will really co-operate in stemming the tide of refugees and other migrants. Otherwise Merkel would have only the choice of making life in Germany for immigrants beyond a certain limit of applications – once a still to be defined number of bona fide refugees have been given a legal status – as unattractive as possible while at the same time suspending the Schengen agreement indefinitely in order to introduce real – not merely symbolic -  border controls again.

But such a radical change of policy is almost inconceivable as long as she and the SPD govern Germany, and might even require a change of the German constitution, depending on how one interprets the present legal arrangements (theoretically, even now, nobody is entitled to seek asylum in German who has already been in a ‘safe’ country before coming to Germany).

A modification of the constitution would be vetoed by the SPD and even more so by the Greens, that is clear, and Merkel herself, apart from the probable motives for her behaviour already discussed, is very reluctant to confront the problems she is facing head on and endorse measures which could create the impression that the German government does not sufficiently care about the fate of refugees.

It is admittedly clear that some of the same European journalists and politicians who now accuse Germany of being far too lax in her immigration policies would then immediately revive memories of the more gruesome chapters of the German past, as has happened only too frequently during the Euro crisis. Accusations of racism would soon be raised.

Nevertheless Merkel’s lack of determination, her total inability to govern in a more confrontational style and to call the SPD’s bluff in permanently blocking harsher measures designed to limit immigration exacerbates a crisis which may be beyond repair anyhow. Merkel now stands a genuine chance of presiding over her country’s ineluctable descent into real chaos.

Germany’s neighbours or some of their elites, in particular in London, Rome and Paris, might even be tempted to rejoice faced with such a prospect because they often deeply resent German leadership in Europe and the stern lessons German politicians whom they see as pedantic and self righteous like to give them on sound economic and fiscal policy, but is a sick man at the heart of Europe really so much better for them than the present German hegemony, which at the end of the day is mostly an illusion, a mere mirage anyhow? One wonders.

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