I do admire and fully support her policies and her strong humanitarian commitment in this refugee crisis. Opening up the country for a million people instead of building fences to keep them out has made her the woman of hope for many refugees. Firmly putting humanitarian help as the imperative against Islamophobic and xenophobic hate campaigns is something I love to see from the political leader of my country.
For the chairperson of a conservative political party that is unexpected and courageous. It resonates well with the majority of the German people who have been generous and welcoming to the refugees coming to their country, their cities and their neighbourhoods. But it has also caused aggressive and violent attacks against refugees. The political hatred on the streets of Dresden is frightening. The criticism of Angela Merkel within her party is growing and the refugee crisis might result in the further rise of right-wing populist parties in Germany. Something that unlike in most other European countries – for historical reasons – has remained so far on the fringes of our national politics.
Experience elsewhere shows that if conservatives move to the right in order to remain electable for a growing far-right electorate that’s a recipe for decline. It merely allows the issues, demands and rhetoric of the right to enter the mainstream. Angela Merkel – criticised by many during the last decade for being a politician without vision, without convictions and flexible to the point of opportunism – has put herself and her authority on the frontline. She has repeatedly and, out of keeping with her normal political style, very emotionally defended her policies. She has positioned herself firmly against the populist right. It is difficult to imagine one of Ms Merkel’s famous policy U-turns on this issue.
Yes, she has no answer to how to stop the flow of migrants; yes, she has no answer to how to stop the conflict in Syria; yes, Germany cannot take more millions of refugees. But does anyone else have an answer? The migrants are so desperate that they risk their health and lives on their long march to a safer world. Those who want to stop them have yet to say how. I suppose even Viktor Orban would not order the army to gun down these desperate people, and even he will not let them starve. He decided to build the border fence because he is convinced that others will not dare to do the same. He is free riding on the humanitarian responsibility of neighbouring countries.
The far right makes a lot of noise, but has no practical answer to solving the crisis. Again Ms Merkel is right: if you can’t stop something the best response is to try to manage it positively. In such a crisis not everything goes well; there are many problems with housing and proper schooling; there will be considerable problems with integrating one million refugees. There is a difference between those fleeing war and terror and those who come for understandable economic reasons. The latter cannot claim the same right to stay in Germany and they cannot expect or demand the same solidarity as those fearing for their lives.
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The government will send some people back to their home countries. But the opposition and the social democrats should avoid the temptation of scoring cheap points by joining the chorus of those criticising the chancellor for failures at the margin and thereby undermining public support for the outstanding help Germany has offered refugees. It will be difficult to maintain the largely positive attitude towards refugees if the conservatives lose their nerves and start giving in to the sizeable anti-immigrant fears and right-wing street protests.
There remains the question of why such a cautious politician as Ms Merkel is becoming such a decisive leader on such a contested issue – one traditionally championed by the greenish left.
In discussions with friends many explanations are circulating. For demographic reasons Germany needs migrants. But if the issue is seriously about attracting skilled labour there are better ways than a flood of refugees crossing national borders. Angela Merkel feels reminded of 1989 when many of her East German country-men and -women mounted a peaceful mass movement that brought down fences and walls. In that case she would be a remarkable exception among east Germans and eastern Europeans as none of the other eastern European leaders has made that connection.
She just thought there was no alternative and pragmatically decided to open the borders while underestimating how many more people this would motivate to start the risky march to Europe. This looks to me like the most convincing argument. Though another friend surprised me by suggesting that Angela Merkel’s crusade for humanitarian values is part of her election campaign – no, not for re-election, but for becoming UN General Secretary.
I hope he is wrong. Not that I feel Angela Merkel would be a bad UN General Secretary, but it would fuel a right-wing backlash against refugees in Germany. People would interpret Ms Merkel as the ultimate cynical politician promoting a massive inflow of refugees in order to advance her own political career. I would still defend her, even if it would appear that she did the right thing for the wrong reason. But there is no need for that – at least for the time being.