It goes without saying that the arrival of more than one million refugees and migrants since 2015 has left its mark on German politics and society. All levels of the German federal system – local communities, the federal states (Bundesländer), and the federal government – have had to adapt in order to process asylum applications and assess eligibility for asylum. More than this, Germany has had to adapt to deal with the needs of the newcomers who have been granted asylum, and to handle the cases of those who haven’t.
Because of the sheer scale of the task and the potentially divisive nature of the influx of such a large number of newcomers within only a year, Chancellor Angela Merkel made the handling of the refugee policy a top priority to be coordinated by her chancellery in October 2015. The operational side of Germany’s refugee policy remained with the Ministry of the Interior, but the overall political coordination has been the job of the head of the chancellery, and has been a set topic on the agenda of the weekly cabinet meetings ever since. “Yes we can”, is the signal that Angela Merkel has been broadcasting in this cross-ministerial push.
There is probably no ministry at federal level (as well as at sub-national levels) that has been left unaffected by the response to the crisis. And even more so, the “refugee crisis” has entered Berlin’s wider policy debates as a natural point of reference and as a crucial turning point for the country.
With the lady on the top making “yes we can” her priority, the message trickled down the administration – and quickly had a remarkable impact on policy conversations in Berlin. “The refugees” are the lens through which a majority of policymakers in Berlin have begun to look at Germany, Europe and the world at the moment. In the many conversations over the past months there has hardly been one in which the refugee crisis didn’t play a role in the thinking of one’s interlocutors – and that means not as small talk, but as a factor to be considered, influencing German policies at national, EU, and international level. The degree to which the refugee management crisis has started to frame policy debates in Berlin, including in the field of European and foreign policy, has been striking. In a conversation back in 2015 on the EU future of the United Kingdom it was even suggested to me that the question of whether the UK left the EU or not had become rather irrelevant because the very survival of the Union was at stake through the refugee crisis.
The question, then, is whether policymakers and the media over-emphasise the importance of the issue? Does the current challenge of migration to Germany really require such a deep and integrated level of attention across the whole government infrastructure and its policy output? Are refugees really the game-changer for Germany? Or has the German government, and indeed Chancellor Merkel, overdone its response under pressure from the media and growing populist sentiments? And at what cost?
No doubt, the arrival of more than one million newcomers is a big (probably not a grand) challenge for German society. But does this challenge justify the major shifts that recent German policies have meant for Europe as a whole? Germany’s policy vis-à-vis Turkey is a case in point. It is quite breath-taking to see German officials squirming when you ask them about how European the deal with Turkey is. It is quite clear that it was Angela Merkel who wanted the deal, and ultimately got it after difficult intra EU negotiations. The German government would have weighed the cost of these “difficult negotiations” with its EU partners against the gains to be made with the Turkey deal – and obviously came to the conclusion that bringing numbers down quickly was a good enough reason to completely change the power dynamic with Ankara in the longer term. In the German debate it is Angela Merkel’s dependence on Turkey that is now the talk of the town. What is largely ignored, then, is the impact that the deal had on the overall enlargement framework that the EU, and Germany as part of it, had agreed to engage in with Turkey. Again, Berlin created facts that affected overall EU policies.
Now that numbers of arrivals have started to go down as a result of the closure of the Western Balkans route and the deal with Turkey, the immediate pressure on the government has eased. It is now time to look at the collateral damage that Berlin’s desperate attempts to bring numbers down have meant for the EU system as a whole. And time to step back and dissect whether the German government, by wielding all of its power, has created unrealistic expectations regarding the impact that policies can have on the routes and numbers of migrants into Germany, and Europe as a whole.
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