© Ricardo Pinto, 2016, AngloDeutsch™ Blog, www.AngloDeutsch.EU
2015 was another tumultuous year for Europe. Over a million refugees found their way into the European Union (EU), but already a new dynamic is evident in early 2016: the refugee backlash has begun and Europe is pulling-up the drawbridge on refugees and economic migrants. The broad contours of the dynamic evident can be summarised as follows:
- The EU countries have accepted too many and cannot continue to absorb refugees at the same rate;
- Germany was irresponsible in allowing so many refugees;
- Without proper checks, the refugee will include a radical element that will pose a threat to the EU´s security, as illustrated by the terrifying Paris bombings in November 2015;
- Once in Germany, or wherever, they will spread to other parts of the EU, so the freedom of movement of people principle may need to be looked at again;
- Further sexual assaults on women and robberies by young men from “the African or North African region” are to be expected following the shameful New Year’s Eve experiences in Cologne, Hamburg and other cities;
- The current levels of migration will destroy Europe as we know it; the borders must close, only legitimate applications up to a predetermined cap can be accepted and the rest sent back.
This all seems logical and it plays well as a populist theme. This certainly applies to parties such as the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) in Germany and the UK Independence Party (UKIP), but it also goes down equally well with the mainstream political parties such as the Conservative Party in the UK and the CDU and especially CSU in Germany. This is without even mentioning the more radical right wing movements that exist throughout Europe. Not surprisingly, shrill criticism of the migration issue and the EU’s apparent inability to manage the situation is particularly evident in the UK, as it gears up for the forthcoming referendum (the exact date of which has not yet been announced) on whether to remain in the EU or not.
It is very difficult to unpack and analyse what is clearly a highly emotive theme, let alone have a sensible debate about it, which is the very reason why certain political parties are making hay with the refugee issue. Previously, their favourite theme was the Eurozone/Greece crisis, now it is migration but the overall gloom and doom narrative does not change very much.
I should stress that there are clearly legitimate public concerns throughout Europe about the migration issue, both within the EU and from outside. However, the use of scare tactics to gain political or other advantage is not something I enjoy witnessing so I aim to address a sub-set of issues, such as Germany’s alleged irresponsible behaviour, the argument that Europe simply cannot cope and the refugee backlash that is in full swing before the first month of 2016 is finished.
The blame game
I will start with Germany’s role in the European refugee crisis. There is certainly a messy situation, but did Germany act irresponsibly in 2015?
Any way you choose to cut it, Germany has played the key role in the refugee crisis. Germany accepted 1.1 million refugees in 2015, a number than could rise further on by the time the counting is official. Germany had in any case been experiencing significant flows of migrants, mainly from the EU. For the last few years this has been running at over 400,000 net migrants per year. Add this up and Germany received at least 1.5 million net migrants last year, which is an astonishing figure. Furthermore, under the German asylum law, refugees may be allowed to bring their family members, resulting in a significant and unquantifiable flow connected with 2015.
By any reasonable criteria Germany has been an incredibly good country to accept so many people. This is not just about the cost involved, which is undoubtedly significant albeit one which Germany is in a position to absorb. Being a good country is first and foremost about the willingness to recognise the human suffering cause by the migration crisis and to try to do something about it, rather than turning a blind eye to it all.
The contrast with many other EU countries could not be greater. Countries such as the UK have agreed to accept 5,000 Syrian refugees per year for the next five years. It has to be borne in mind that even this paltry number was only agreed to following a public outcry from British citizens appalled by their government’s hard heartedness, which bounced Parliament into agreeing to do more.
Germany is not alone in being a good country: about 90% of the refugees have been accepted by three countries out of 28 in the EU: Germany, Sweden and Austria. What about the response of the other 25 countries of the EU? Following months of unedifying political squabbling, which continues to this day, the best they could come-up with was to agree to relocate 160,000 asylum seekers from Greece and Italy over the next two years: this is an average of 5,700 per country over two years, though very few of these transfers have actually occurred so far (less than 500 were achieved in 2015 and only 3 out of 10 “hot spots” have opened according to some estimates).
Is “pitiful” too strong a word to summarise the EU’s collective failure in the face of a mass humanitarian crisis? I don’t think so. It is not the first time that the EU has failed miserably to stand up to be counted and it will almost certainly not be the last. It is not as if the refugee crisis was some sudden, unexpected act of god; this is the result of steadily growing pressure and reaching its natural and inevitable conclusion. There was nothing about it that could not have been predicted by the civil servants of the European Commission or of the EU member states.
Germany’s decision to act more or less unilaterally in accepting 1.1 million refugees must be seen in the following context:
- This is the worst crisis since WW2: the number of forcibly displaced people, often due to wars, reached almost 60 million worldwide at the end of 2014, including over 14 million refugees. This was an increase of about 25% compared to the previous year and is mostly due civil war, violence and oppression in Syria, Eritrea, Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq, etc. although other regions, including northern Africa and the Balkans, are also major sources of migrants (IMF, 2016 / The Refugee Surge in Europe: Economic Challenges). This is nothing short of a mass human tragedy, which Europe is neither immune to nor can afford to simply turn its back on. Globalisation entails many new developments, including the capacity of large numbers of people to move in the direction of Europe. It may take time, but sooner or later, it does reach Europe.
- This was not a crisis of Germany’s making: it did not chose to invade Iraq in 2003 and played little or no part in setting in chain a series of events which have destabilised parts of the Middle East, in an attempt to bring about democracy through regime change. Of all the European nations it is the UK, France and Italy (together with the USA) that bear the greatest responsibility for any resulting instability in the region. All are now conspicuous for their efforts to obfuscate causality and deny moral or other responsibility (if you break something, you should fix it) to deal with the resulting mess that they helped to set in chain.
- The EU failed spectacularly: the utter inability of the EU to find common ground in dealing with the huge volume of people heading towards Europe is what resulted in Germany’s more or less unilateral action. Just as in the Greek/Eurozone crises, it is proving extremely difficult for 28 countries to make decisions quickly and act in unison. This should not be in the least bit surprising. The EU is very far from being a United States of Europe; this simply reflects the fact that the nation-state is alive and well within the EU, despite exaggerated claims of its demise. Each nation retains the ability to follow its own mandate and block changes that it does not agree with. The Central European (Visegrad countries) and Western Balkans states have made their views crystal clear in respect to taking a share of the refugees, but they are not alone. Just as in the case of Greece and the Eurozone, finding a common solution to an unexpected large-scale problem is a slow, messy and costly process. In the end, to misquote slightly the famous words: Europeans Will Always Do the Right Thing — After Exhausting All the Alternatives. The 28 nation states plus the various Candidate Countries (i.e. Western Balkans including Turkey) will find an imperfect compromise and Germany will pay a disproportionate amount of the cost arising. Such is the iron rule of the EU. No other scenario is possible if 28+ nations are to continue to play broadly for the same team. How many other international agreements are you aware of that take a couple of weeks or months to resolve? Climate change agreements? International trade agreements? These things take years or decades, not weeks or months to sort out and are always and everywhere an uneasy compromise. 28+ countries finding a way to deal with the worst humanitarian crisis in 70 years takes time but in 2015, time was of the essence where people are involved, rather than just economics.
Cometh the hour, cometh the country: Germany chose not to sit on its hands but to act in alleviating the growing pressure along the Turkish-Greek-Balkan-Central European corridor.
Refugees in Miratovac, close to the border between Serbia and Macedonia. Photo by Djordje Savic / EPA
You are free to form your own opinion about whether Germany has acted irresponsibly or not. I personally think that not only has Germany acted incredibly responsibly, but as tax payer and resident of the country, I am proud of living in such a country. No doubt, Germany has already changed as a result and ordinary Germans are deeply unsettled about the implications, an issue which I plan to write about in the future. This is a reflection, among other issues of the fact that the scale of the problem is so great that no country can possibly solve it all on its own – not even Germany.
Europe Cannot Cope! Really?
The next issue is whether Germany and/or Europe have relevant experience and if they can absorb the numbers of refugees.
For a start, I can distinctly remember (since I was part of it) a small, poor, broken European country of 8.5 million absorbing about 1 million people from its former colonies during the mid- to late-1970s. While there are major differences with the current situation (common language, culture, religion, etc.), Portugal was not part of the EU but absorbed those numbers and did not collapse despite its politically chaotic and economically precarious post-colonial situation at the time. In fact, it thrived as a result of the influx. Don’t get me wrong: I am not suggesting that Europe should fling open its doors to all and sundry with no questions asked, but I am saying that Europe is much more robust than many would seem to believe.
After a short-lived spike of international approval for its decision to take on the refugees, Germany has since reaped criticism, direct and indirect, most of which has been leveled at Angela Merkel, the Germany Chancellor. The gist of the argument is that she has gambled Germany’s long term interests for personal hubris: she wanted to cap her career with a Nobel Peace Prize and/or improve Germany’s international image after the Greek crisis. Others of a more analytical bent sought instead to justify Germany’s actions (and presumably the inaction of their own governments) by pointing to Germany’s ageing population structure. It seems to me that almost all 28 EU countries are suffering from the same problem, albeit to varying degrees. Did others facing the same demographic situation jump to take their share of refugees? I don’t think so.
It is certainly true that Germany and many EU countries have a rapidly ageing population structure (fertility of around 1.5, which is below the replacement rate of 2.1) that would greatly benefit from significant immigration of the scale that happened during 2015. But I take issue with the implication that the German authorities naively failed to foresee the likely stresses and strains that would be generated by taking so many refugees in one year (the estimate at the time was 800,000 – 1 million refugees). The reality is that Europe generally and Germany specifically have plenty of experience of large scale refugee crises and indeed of Muslims culture.
Firstly, Germany has a large number of Muslims. According to the 2011 Population Census, there are just under 6.2 million foreigners in Germany and Turks alone accounted for the largest group (1.5 million people or 24.4%). In all, some 2.5 million people are of Turkish origin. It is not as though Germany is not aware of the stresses and strains associated with the religion, gender, education, labour market and other dimensions connected with integrating populations, including Muslims. The same applies to many countries of the EU but unlike others, it still went ahead with what is often described by its critics as its “open door” policy.
Secondly, it was not so long ago that Germany had to respond to a refugee crisis of similar proportion. During the 1990s, a large number of asylum applications were lodged due to crisis in the ex-Yugoslavia, though the peak of that crisis in 1991 (around 700,000) has been exceeded in 2015 (see first Figure below). That said the second Figure below illustrates the point that the numbers were relatively low compared to those of the 1990s, though the diagram does not take the 2015 influx of over a million refugees into consideration. It is probably not a coincidence that then, as now, Germany absorbed the lion’s share of refugees.
Source: IMF, 2016, p.11
Thirdly, to put things in context, Europe had only absorbed 1 out of the 14 million refuges worldwide in 2014 and this increased to 2 million in 2015. Whoever believes that what has happened in 2015 is the end of the matter and that the EU can simply put-up the fences, close the borders and turn its back on the rest of the world is deluded. A proportion of the 12 million other displaced people are heading our way in 2016 and beyond: the current estimate is that another 1 million will aim for the EU this year and possibly more. The way to end this catastrophe is not by pulling-up the drawbridge to Fortress Europe; if the conflicts in the countries in question are ended and if this is combined with a major reconstruction programme, in time, the human tragedy and the migratory process will also abate. Putting-up fences and closing borders will restrict some of the flow, but will also add to the human desperation without actually dealing with the root cause.
To conclude, in my view Germany did not saunter into the current situation blithely and Mrs Merkel was right in saying “Wir schaffen das.” We can do it: I agree with her. Other, much smaller and poorer countries have in the part or are currently absorbing the same or higher numbers of refugees. Germany knew, more or less, the implications of opening its borders to about a million refugees, even if the general public could not have predicted the exact consequences, including the outrages in Cologne and other cities. It is most unlikely that Europe’s pre-eminent politician would not have sniffed the potential political, social, religious and cultural implications of undertaking such a radical step. The numbers absorbed by Europe are relatively small by comparison with the numbers being absorbed by other countries, including Turkey. If they can do it, so can Europe. Indeed, a cursory reading of European history proves that it has coped with wave after wave of migration.
To ask if the refugee backlash is coming would be to pose the wrong question: it is already here.
The mood in Germany and the rest of Europe started turning ugly long before the Paris terrorist attacks and the mass sexual and other crimes in Cologne and other German cities during the New Year’s Eve celebrations that went wrong. Pensioners are up in arms about the way they perceive their country is changing. Parents are concerned about their children’s education as gymnasia are requisitioned as temporary accommodation and class rooms begin to take the strain of absorbing the influx of non-German speakers. House prices and rent levels are being pushed up in an overheating housing market where affordable accommodation is scarce. Region and local authorities remain deeply concerned about practical matters in addition to shelter, such as state benefits and labour market opportunities for refugees. The issue of integration and whether it is possible to achieve or not, is “the” topic of conversation. This applies to Germany and it applies equally to other EU countries.
Angela Merkel has gone from being Europe’s pre-eminent politician and practically politically unassailable in Germany, to being under siege. Make no mistake about it; she is fighting for her political future. Yet despite the ratcheting of pressure, even today, she is refusing to put a cap of the number of refugees that will be accepted by Germany in future (the CSU is openly advocating a cap of 200,000 per annum, which itself puts the UK’s response in the shade). There are probably two reasons for this. Firstly, German asylum law is based on individual assessments so caps would not be workable without changing the law (but we know laws can be changed at the drop of a political hat). Secondly, the huge numbers of forcibly displaced people out there (14 million and counting) are desperate and there is no end to their travails in prospect. What would you do in their shoes? Which safe harbour would you try to reach, possibly at the cost of perishing on the way? A cap would be a meaningless promise without a workable EU arrangement.
Mrs Merkel is displaying the hallmark of true leadership: political courage and acknowledging moral duties beyond her nation’s borders. That is the essence of being responsible in a European and global sense, though I recognise fully that many would much rather put national and personal interest before anything else, including in Germany.
Merkel probably expected the rest of Europe, especially the largest countries, most of which have had more than a hand in the unfolding disaster in the Middle East, to take a much greater share of the humanitarian burden. Despite the lessons of Greece, she has miscalculated in relation to most of the EU and is now in the middle of the biggest political crisis that she has ever faced. She also appears to have greatly overestimated the Greek and Turkish capacity to manage their borders.
But she is nothing if not a pragmatic leader. She has recognised that the whirlwind is not just gathering, it is already blowing. A change has already been signaled that 2016 will not be the same as 2015. The scale of the challenge means that Germany cannot shoulder the burden mostly on its own for much longer. All three of the most generous countries have introduced border visa checks (three others have also and many more are threatening to do the same). A closure of national borders has so far been resisted by the EU, but this could change. Sweden has announced that 80,000 of the 160,000 refugees it accepted will be sent back because they are economic migrants, not refugees. The EU has reinforced the message by stating that 60% of the applicants are not refugees at all but economic migrants mainly from the Balkans and North African countries such as Morocco and Tunisia. It has also threatened to suspend Greece from Schengen for systematic failures in the migrant crisis. In turn Greece is pointing its finger at Turkey for allowing migrants to “swamp” their border and islands. Reports are piling up that in addition to anti-refugee demonstrations and hostels being set on fire in Germany, violence is erupting in Sweden and other countries.
A common EU approach is the only way forward, combined with a serious and concerted effort to end the conflicts and reconstruct economies, since these are the drivers of mass population displacement. But just like the Greek and Eurozone crises, which are also far from over, it will not happen miraculously or overnight.
So, get ready for a much more hard-nosed European approach to the refugee crisis, with an emphasis on only accepting people from conflict zones (true refugees and asylum seekers) and rejecting all others (i.e. economic migrants). The EU drawbridge is being pulled-up. The wider societal backlash is already underway and those that are leading it will not be pausing to distinguish those that deserve to be helped from those that do not.