In September 2015, Germans gathered at train stations with hot food and flowers to welcome tens of thousands of refugees from the war-torn Middle East. A week earlier, Chancellor Angela Merkel had surprised Europe by announcing that Germany would grant asylum to all Syrian refugees arriving at its borders. This, in effect, opened up Germany to a mass influx of traumatised people, of a kind that had not been witnessed since the Second World War. By the end of 2015, as many as 1.1 million asylum-seekers had entered the country.
At the time, Mrs Merkel was applauded for her courage, compassion and willingness to demonstrate that Germany was prepared to lead the continent in burden-sharing. But other EU countries did not follow in opening their borders. Instead, fences began to be erected all over Europe and countries such as Sweden, grappling with its own migration crisis, introduced emergency border controls, which are permissible under the membership rules of the Schengen area.
Denmark, Belgium, France, Norway and Austria have since also introduced temporary controls. The Austrian chancellor, Werner Faymann, was reported to have been the only other EU leader Mrs Merkel consulted before making her proclamation. Yet he is now at the forefront of efforts to close the borders of the Balkan states so that refugees might be contained in Greece. So much for cross-border solidarity.
Meanwhile, the populist Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, is holding a referendum to reject any permanent quota of refugees that might be foisted on the country by Brussels and Berlin. And the mood in Germany has darkened. In many towns and cities, flowers and food have been replaced by unrest and hostility. Small towns warn of the unsustainable strain on their teachers and doctors. Temporary hostels for asylum-seekers have been firebombed. The response to the sexual attacks on women in Cologne on New Year’s Eve encapsulated a new suspicion towards the Syrian arrivals, even though most of the perpetrators were not refugees.
Mrs Merkel is increasingly isolated at home and abroad. Her approval ratings have fallen and the party that she leads, the Christian Democratic Union, is expected to suffer significant reverses in the state elections to be held later this month. By contrast, the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) is surging in popularity, as Mark Leonard reports in this issue.
Germany’s struggles offer lessons for all Western countries in how to respond to the question of migration – the single most serious issue facing the EU today. Mrs Merkel’s actions demonstrated a compassion absent among other European leaders but they were reckless. First, she issued what amounted to an open invitation to refugees to head for Germany, no matter where they were in the world or from what they were fleeing. Second, her government failed to make sufficient preparations for the absorption of so many people. Third, she underestimated, or did not consider, the social costs of such a large and sudden influx of non-Europeans into Germany, hence the popularity of the anti-immigrant AfD.
In January, Thomas de Maizière, the German interior minister, said: “If we have the highest number of refugees since the Second World War, that will have an effect on Germany. We find that number too high – and we’re going to try to ensure that that figure in 2016 is not as high.” But how high is high enough? The same month, another 91,671 migrants entered Germany. The flow of people seems ceaseless.
Against this backdrop, the timing of the British referendum on EU membership is especially unfortunate. Brexit, together with the migration crisis, could destabilise the European project in unforeseen ways.
With fragile states and turmoil in the Middle East, British engagement with the world is as vital as ever – especially so in the light of the recent warnings by Philip Breedlove, Nato’s top commander, that Russia and Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria may be using migration to strain European unity. The mass movement of peoples could become the defining characteristic of this century. The struggle to resettle and integrate refugees peacefully is far greater than the parochial politics of the Conservative Party and will not disappear, whatever decision we make in the referendum on 23 June. But by continuing to co-operate on equal terms with the other nations of Europe, Britain can lead the continent’s response to this great migration. Mrs Merkel’s travails are partly a product of her recklessness; they also show what happens when Europe’s leaders fail to work together. This is no time for Britain to become a walled island.
This article appears in the 02 Mar 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Germany's migrant crisis