Will Merkel Pay for Doing the Right Thing?
A former German chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, recently called Angela Merkel’s decision to open the door to an unlimited number of refugees a “mistake” and offered this verdict: Merkel had a “heart, but no plan.”
This view of the German leader, who is beloved but now begrudged, is gaining ground as refugees from a ravaged Syria and elsewhere pour in. Local authorities are strained to the limit. Billions of euros have been spent with no end in sight. Many people came in whose identities are unknown; they have to register if they want handouts, but some have not and there are security concerns. Cologne has become a byword for concern over how a large influx of Muslim men will affect the place and security of women in German society.
Three important state elections loom next month. It seems inevitable the far-right Alternative for Germany Party will surge. Merkel will be blamed. Her support has already tumbled. One poll this month showed 46 percent of Germans support her, compared with 75 percent in April last year - and that’s with a strong economy. She could be vulnerable if her Christian Democratic Party turns on her. Europe without Merkel will sink.
So why did this customarily prudent chancellor do it? Because she is a German, and to be German is to carry a special responsibility for those terrorized in their homeland and forced into flight. Because she once lived in a country, East Germany, that shot people who tried to cross its border. Because a united Europe ushered Germany from its darkest hour to prosperity, and she is not about to let the European Union pitch into mayhem on her watch - as it would with more than a million ragged refugees adrift. And, yes, because she has a heart.
Merkel did the right thing. The question now is how she handles the consequences. Management involves setting limits. After taking in more than one million refugees last year, Germany cannot take in that number again in 2016. As Germany’s president, Joachim Gauck, said recently: “A limitation strategy may even be both morally and politically necessary in order to preserve the state’s ability to function.” He added, “If democrats refuse to talk about limits, they leave the field open to populists and xenophobes.”
But setting limits is not a just a German issue. It’s a Syrian issue. It’s a Turkish issue. It’s a Russian issue. It’s an American issue. It’s a European issue. Merkel needs Europe to have a functioning external border if it is to remain borderless within the 20-plus-nation Schengen zone. Otherwise national borders will go up. The European Union will unmake itself. “No European border, no Schengen!” Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff, Gauck’s chief adviser, told me.
Merkel’s domestic dilemma demands international answers.
She needs the Syrian war, the main source of the refugee outflow, to end, but the latest American-Russian plan for a cessation of hostilities almost looks more likely to unravel in the weeks ahead than hold. She needs Turkey, in exchange for billions of euros, to tighten its borders and stop the refugee exodus. But Turkey is playing an extortion game, and is not above a little schadenfreude at seeing the Europe that rejected it fray.
In Russia, she needs President Vladimir Putin’s cooperation, but a core element of his strategy is the undermining of a united Europe; the refugee flow from Syria achieves just that. She needs the United States to exercise its power in a way President Obama has refused to do through the inexorable spread of the Syrian crisis. Unless the United States is prepared to establish a safe area in northern Syria and put pressure on Turkey to turn a chaotic refugee flow into an orderly process, the current untenable situation will persist. If America is unprepared to reverse Russian-Iranian gains in Syria, it must at least show commitment to managing the consequences. She needs European countries like Poland and Hungary - recipients of huge injections of cash from the European Union - to snap out of their ungrateful moods of nationalist xenophobia, but that’s not going to happen soon.
The European idea has not been this weak since the march to unity began in the 1950s. Germany is awash in so-called Putinversteher - broadly Putin sympathizers like Schröder - who admire him for his strong assertion of Russian national interests. Michael Naumann, a former minister of culture, told me: “The United States has left us, we are the orphaned kids in the playground, and there’s one tough guy, Putin. It’s really that simple.”
Germany is Europe’s core, its dominant power. If Merkel’s refugee gambit implodes, the reverberations will be felt everywhere. The country feels restive, placid on the surface, tense beneath. A woman told me of how a 15-year-old Syrian refugee was admitted to her daughter’s class. The girl’s cellphone rang, the ring tone was a muezzin’s call to prayer, and the teacher burst out: “So next you’ll have a suicide belt!” There was embarrassment all around, apologies and parental letters. “The situation’s out of control,” the woman said.
At the Berlin state office for health and social affairs, a sprawling maze of buildings, white tents have gone up. Long lines of refugees make their way through the various bureaucratic hurdles to identity cards. They huddle in the rain, their sneakers muddy, their jackets too flimsy for the cold.
Mustafa Dilaneh left Latakia, Syria’s main port, in August, and paid $6,000 for his passage to Germany. He has been granted German residency until Feb. 22; he hopes for a passport after that. He is learning German. He wants to return home, but first, he says, President Bashar al-Assad “must go or die.” Failing that, he has a dream of America. “I love New York so much,” he told me. “The city no sleep.”
A Facebook friend taught Dilaneh that phrase. This is the world’s first massive smartphone coordinated migration. Syrians don’t see the West as alien; they know it through countless images, brands and tunes. But for some Germans, these Middle Eastern refugees are an alien threat.
I went out to Nauen, a small dismal town near Berlin where unemployment is high. Signs brandished at rightist demonstrations last year said, “Nauen will stay white.” In August, a gymnasium that was to have housed refugees was burned down in an unsolved act of arson. The charred skeleton of the building with its blackened pillars and piles of rubble still stands. It cost about four million euros to build and will need at least that amount to replace.
A new emergency center for several hundred refugees is planned nearby, with a view of this stark symbol of hatred. To say Nauen is combustible would be an understatement. “There will more protests,” Volker Müller, who works to promote intercultural understanding, told me. “In some ways this feels like a bigger problem than German reunification.”
The scale of Germany’s challenge is evident at Tempelhof Airport in Berlin, built to last by the Nazis, and used in 1948 and 1949 for the Berlin Airlift that, at its height, saw American C-47s landing every 90 seconds to bring the supplies essential for the preservation of freedom in part of the divided German capital. Now the vast 52-foot high hangars are being converted into shelters for thousands of refugees who sleep, 12 to each screened white rectangular bedroom unit, where aircraft were once housed. Already there are 2,600 or so refugees; there may eventually be 7,000. “It’s our duty to find a place for them,” Sascha Langenbach, a spokesman on Berlin social issues, told me. He predicted another 60,000 may come to the capital this year.
I spoke to a couple of young refugees from Aleppo, Mahmoud Sultan and Mulham (he preferred not to give his family name out of concern for his family’s safety). They complained about the food, about the noise, about the difficulty of studying German, about how weeks stretched into months at this “emergency” center.
They had not wanted to leave Aleppo. But, as Mulham put it: “You have this hope the war will end. For one year, two years, three years, you keep this hope. You think, I owe my country something and I will stay. Until in the fifth year you realize there are five wars! The rebels against Assad, ISIS against the Free Syrian Army, the Saudis against Iran, the Kurds against ISIS, and Russia against America! And you lose hope.”
The refugees did not leave because they had a choice. They left because they concluded they had none. Merkel, given her personal history and her nation’s, had little choice but to take them in.
Now she needs those five wars to abate, and Western allies to come together with something of the resolve that Tempelhof symbolizes, if she is to calm a strained Germany, hold Europe together, and survive. That will require leadership and determination of a kind she demonstrated but that is in short supply in the social-media echo chamber of our times.