The naysayers are calling it a climbdown, but is it? German Chancellor Angela Merkel has stepped back abruptly from her open-arms policy on refugees—or has seemed to. The slogan ‘We Can Do It’ (Wir schaffen das) — memorably hailed as heroic by an Auschwitz survivor in the German parliament earlier this year—has become ‘almost an empty formula’ given the daunting challenge of integrating refugees en masse.
‘If I could, I would rewind time by many, many years, to better prepare myself, the whole government and all those in positions of responsibility, for the situation that caught us unprepared in the late summer of 2015’, the Chancellor said.
Made after her Christian Democrats got a shellacking in Berlin regional elections, the comments were widely interpreted as Merkel’s mea culpa. But an intriguing alternative view discerned the expression — the resurgence even—of Merkel’s conciliatory side, amply evident after the Brexit vote but obscured until now in the ‘storm and stress’ of the refugee crisis.
This was the Chancellor reaching out to pacify her ruling conservative Christian Democratic (CDU)/Christian Social (CSU) bloc, which wants a tougher tone on refugees, and voters who have flocked to the far-right Alternative for Deutschland (AfD) in four regional elections since March. Less a climbdown, then, than clearing the way: broadcaster Deutsche Welle said Merkel’s remarks confirmed that she would run for a fourth term in federal elections next September.
Merkel’s re-election prospects have dwindled due to the local election results but are by no means negligible. The CDU has no obvious replacement and her national approval ratings are still in the 40s. (By way of comparison, French President François Hollande is at 15.) The main German opposition Social Democrats (SPD), with no charismatic leader, has also taken a slide, equally losing votes to the AfD.
Yet Merkel’s diminished popularity should be taken in the context of the scale of her decision last northern summer to wave through to Germany tens of thousands of refugees, mostly from Syria and the Middle East, stranded on a railway platform in Budapest and the socalled Balkan route north from Italy and Greece. Since the Syrian civil war erupted like a geopolitical Chernobyl, Germany has taken well over a million refugees — that is, more than Australia has resettled since the end of the Second World War. The implications, enormous for policy and in terms of national and historical identity, have shaken Germany to the core.
Merkel’s decision is frequently denounced in terms of the challenge it poses — the influx of refugees — rather than the primacy of the values it embodies: humanity, tolerance and the power of reconciling, middle-ground compromise: host countries have obligations to refugees and they to their host countries.
At issue is a kind of rendezvous with global justice, a balancing act between the war-wracked developing world (which knows ‘how the other half lives’ via new media) and Europe’s foundation philosophy, at a time when the United States is being tempted by Donald Trump’s racially divisive approach. Not only have wars in the Middle East killed millions of people since the Gulf War in 1990 but also two recent British reports (Chilcot on Iran and a parliamentary group on Libya) have shown that half-cocked Western attempts at nation-building post-intervention have stuffed up monumentally. Surely we in the West have a moral responsibility to take refugees, even if temporarily, fleeing wars we ignited or ignored or for which we have failed to find a diplomatic solution.
Elsewhere in Europe there has been painfully little echo of Merkel’s humanitarian approach, neither on the Left, mired in confusion, nor on the Right, which has hardened its anti-refugee rhetoric since the start of the crisis in France, Britain and Austria. (As for increasingly anti-liberal Eastern Europe, well, someone must have forgotten to tell the political elite what EU membership is supposed to mean.)
But the corollary of Merkel resisting populism’s rise is that, in comparable terms, the German people have, too. Germany has its ugly history, of course, irreparable for some observers, but the country has stepped up to the plate on refugees and this should be plainly acknowledged, as Obama finally did at the United Nations recently, also citing Canada. Put another way, what might be the approval ratings of a British prime minister or a French president — or an Australian prime minister, for that matter — if they had decided to do as Merkel has done?
Perhaps in ten or twenty years the countries that had the courage and commitment to take refugees in substantial numbers in 2015–16 will have redressed their labour-force imbalances, reversed a declining birth rate and paid for their pension systems. Those prepared to hear the cry of the weak in the long night of the Middle East—facing political uncertainty, even humiliation—will have turned things around, be out front and winning.
Angela Merkel is expected to announce whether she will stand for re-election before the CDU party conference in December.