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Analysis
Merkel’s refugee challenge

Merkel’s refugee challenge

Why the Germans should support the Chancellor

by John Kornblum in Berlin

Wed 6 Jan 2016

If there is anything German news magazine Der Spiegel relishes, it is a good fight. Its editors have gone to prison for defending press freedom, while debates on the most controversial of subjects regularly fill its pages. However, the magazine on 4 January told subscribers it could no longer include a ‘forum’ section for readers’ comments on the European refugee crisis.  According to Spiegel Online, the refugee issue had attracted so many ‘inappropriate, insulting and even libellous comments’ that ‘maintenance of our Netiquette’, as it called it, ‘is no longer possible’.

The migration crisis has prompted similar angry and even violent reactions throughout a European Union that only two years ago basked in the glow only a Nobel Peace Prize can bestow. Today, open borders, liberal asylum policies and a multicultural society appear but a distant memory. Some observers have even questioned whether the Union can survive.

That question would be more pertinent if Europe’s leading power had joined the chorus of naysayers across the continent and on the other side of the English Channel. Luckily, this has not happened. Belying a reputation for hesitation and caution, German Chancellor Angela Merkel moved quickly to place Germany squarely on the side of compassion for those fleeing war and famine in Africa and the Middle East. 

Merkel’s early words of welcome prompted the type of reactions experienced by Der Spiegel. However, signs of growing radicalism have not been borne out. Fringe parties are attracting increased support in public opinion polls, but Merkel’s readiness to end automatic asylum for Syrian refugees has helped her party recover from recent lows. With positive employment data in December helping to calm public opinion, Merkel was confirmed in her role as party leader at the mid-December CDU Congress, receiving a standing ovation.  

History may be playing a role. Germany has compensated for the disaster of the Third Reich by taking in millions of refugees since the second world war, including more than 15m from its former eastern territories. Until the 1980s it granted asylum to any person able to provide a convincing story of persecution in his or her home country.

Equally relevant is the decisive role that the Federal Republic’s two present-day senior leaders – President Joachim Gauck and Merkel – have played.  The fact that both grew up in Soviet-occupied East Germany adds a special urgency to their message. Each has stressed Germany’s special mission in ensuring that Europe comes together to address probably the greatest threat to its unity since the Berlin Wall was erected in 1961.

In his New Year’s message to the nation, Gauck drew attention to the moral dilemma the refugee crisis has raised. He said it was time for Germans ‘to show what we are made of’. Merkel echoed the president’s sentiments in her own message while adding a practical note, describing the refugee flow as a ‘chance for tomorrow’ that would bring tangible economic and social benefits.

Nevertheless, the debate will continue. Germany’s convoluted election laws mean that six of its 16 states will elect governments in 2016, while national elections are scheduled for September 2017. The political temperature will rise steadily in 2016. Merkel can expect little respite from public pressure.

Heated debate is a normal aspect of democracies. Controversy and anger do not mean that Germany is sinking into radicalism, that Merkel is ‘finished’ or that the refugee debate reflects a ‘new face of German hate’, as a German editorialist recently suggested in the New York Times.

The reality is different and much more positive. Germany is providing the leadership we all expect from it. Political controversy is no bad thing – precisely the opposite. In fact, controversy is the price of Merkel's Germany firmly defending its principles.

Rather than sniping at Merkel from the sidelines, Germany's editors and politicians should be wholeheartedly defending her fortitude and perseverance – and giving her every incentive to succeed.

John Kornblum is a former US ambassador to Germany and Senior Counsellor at Noerr LLP, and a member of the OMFIF Advisory Board.

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