Explaining Germany’s refugee dilemma

Despite the heroic efforts of many volunteers and aid organisations, German capacities for refugee accommodation are at breaking point.

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When reading German newspapers from August 2015, it is difficult to find many indications of the kind of Willkommenskultur that would dominate the news in September. Back then, arson attacks on refugee homes or planned refugees centres, personal attacks on foreigners, or other acts of xenophobic vandalism were hitting the headlines instead. Hardly a day passed, without a new story about xenophobic violence – each one more shameful than the last.

The use of organised violence to influence political decisions is normally described as terrorism. But if the right-wing terrorists tried to dissuade Germans from accepting foreigners – or foreigners from coming to Germany – the terror-campaign not only failed, it backfired. Right-wing violence is one of the central issues to understand Germany's and in particular Merkel's decision to suspend the Dublin agreement for refugees from Syria. It was not only a policy towards refugees, it was crucially a sign that the German state and German society would not bow to right-wing violence. This also explains the unusual unpreparedness of the German state. The pull-effect this decision had on Syrian refugees was severely underestimated. Soon after Germany opened itself to refugees, it re-introduced border controls with Austria and the Czech Republic to cope with the rising influx of refugees. Quotas and mechanisms to distribute refugees in German cities and Bundesländer were only agreed upon one week after the refugee wave arrived in Germany. Despite the heroic efforts of many volunteers and aid organisations, German capacities for refugee accommodation are at breaking point. Consequently Germany has had to tighten its asylum and migration procedures just three weeks after loosening them by temporarily suspending the Dublin agreement.

The domestic signal against the radical right also explains the unique popular support Merkel receives within Germany for her policies. While asylum and migration policies are seen as an unpopular burden to every other government in Europe – particularly those fighting election campaigns – the German government can count on at least 60 percent of the population supporting its open-door policy. This is to a large extent because Willkommenskultur is as much about the German post world war two identity as it is about refugees.

This makes the German case unique in Europe, and very difficult to follow for any other countries. The wave of German compassion for example spilled over to Austria (despite the fact that the Social Democrat government is currently threatened by the Freedom Party in key elections). Still, officials were puzzled about the German government’s lack of communication on its refugee policy. And despite Austria's own Willkommenskultur, administrative resources were not unlimited. Hungary aside, the sudden rise of people in motion overwhelmed the administrative capacities of any other transit states. Temporary closed borders are the new normal in South-Eastern Europe.

Now Germany essentially depends on European solidarity to solve the crisis it thought it could set the example on. The same is true for France trying to stabilise the Western Sahel without having received meaningful support from other European states. Pointing fingers at Germany is easy, but as other European states also depend on Germany's solidarity (on permanent bases or financial issues for example), continuing a negative tit-for-tat game on the refugee issue might not be the wisest thing to do. In the long run only an integrated European asylum and migration policy and centralised border service may prevent uncoordinated “muddling through” and the overburdening of other member states through domestic decisions. Otherwise re-nationalisation and re-borderisation of the EU are the inevitable long term consequences. The same is true in the realm of foreign policy if Europe wants to seriously solve the root-causes of this refugee crisis.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Policy Fellow

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