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Up against Angela Merkel, a Social Democrat wants to talk about refugees

25 July 2017

The debate of 2015 is being revived by a candidate for chancellor in September’s election

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Desperation? SPD leader Martin Schulz during a panel discussion at the Liederhalle in Stuttgart last week. Christoph Schmidt/dpa

Desperation? SPD leader Martin Schulz during a panel discussion at the Liederhalle in Stuttgart last week. Christoph Schmidt/dpa


Refugees? Which refugees? As far as Angela Merkel is concerned, refugees aren’t a burning issue. Not now, and not for the next two months leading up to the German elections on 24 September. And anyway, aren’t there more urgent problems: the future of the German automobile industry, and Germany’s increasingly volatile relationship with Turkey, to name just the two most obvious ones?

Merkel has a point, at least in relation to Germany. In the first six months of 2017, the number of asylum seekers arriving there fell to just over 90,000. While that’s about three times the number for all of 2006, the first year of Merkel’s reign as chancellor, it’s far fewer than last year, and only about a tenth of the total number in 2015, the year of the so-called European refugee crisis.

Martin Schulz, the Social Democrat who wants to replace Merkel as chancellor, begs to differ. Last weekend, he conjured the spectre of a new European emergency. “Unless we act now,” he warned, history would repeat itself. With Merkel and the Christian Democrats in mind, he said that it would be “cynical to play for time and try to ignore the refugee issue until the federal elections.” This week, he is off for discussions with Italy’s prime minister, Paolo Gentiloni.

Gentiloni is likely to tell Schulz that talk of a looming refugee crisis makes little sense. For Italy, the crisis is already in full swing. In the past six months, more than 100,000 irregular migrants arrived in Europe by sea, 85 per cent of them disembarking in Italy. Many more are waiting for an opportunity to make the crossing from Libya. Meanwhile, some of Italy’s European partners are refusing to come to its aid. The Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary have said that they won’t take any asylum seekers who first entered Europe in Italy. Austria has threatened to deploy troops at the border, and its foreign minister, Sebastian Kurz, has told his Italian counterpart that Italy ought to stop transferring migrants from Lampedusa and Sicily to the European mainland.

Although Schulz made his name in European, rather than German, politics — he was a member of the European Parliament for twenty-four years, and its president for five — he is likely to be less interested in Italy’s problems than in his own. And the most pressing of these is this: how can he improve the Social Democrats’ chances of leading the next government? If the elections were held now, the most recent polls suggest that Schulz’s party would win less than 25 per cent of the vote while the Christian Democrats could expect about 40 per cent. Not only does it seem increasingly likely that Merkel will win the elections of 24 September; there is also a distinct possibility that she will lead a government made up of the parties of her choice: the Christian Democrats, the Bavarian Christian Social Union, and the Greens.

In other words, Schulz’s announcement that he wants Germany’s response to refugees to feature prominently in the election campaign is a sign of desperation. It is also risky — for two reasons. A greater emphasis on refugees would provide an urgently needed lifeline to the right-wing populists of the Alternative für Deutschland (Alternative for Germany, or AfD), who, if the current trend continues, might not attract enough votes even to be represented in the next German parliament. If they did attract enough support, then it’s likely their success would come at least partly at the expense of the Linke, the successor party of the East German communists, which Schulz would need as partner if he wanted to be the next chancellor at the head of a red–red–green coalition government.

The other risk is that Schulz’s strategy could rebound directly on his own party. He wants to remind Germans of what happened in 2015, when Germany took in about 890,000 asylum seekers, but that risks reminding them of the fact that the Social Democrats didn’t publicly oppose Merkel’s response at the time. For the past four years, they have been part of her government, and thus — nominally at least — have been co-responsible for whatever policies the government pursued.

Schulz must be hoping that voters not only overwhelmingly regret Germany’s generous response in 2015, but also single out Merkel as the one who should be blamed. He has some reason to be optimistic. Surveys suggest most Germans believe that their country took in more asylum seekers than it should have in 2015. And Schulz’s likely claim that Merkel alone is to blame for Germany’s response could draw on evidence that many might find persuasive.


Four months ago, Welt am Sonntag journalist Robin Alexander published Die Getriebenen, a book examining in minute detail the German government’s policy response to refugee arrivals during 2015–16. The book became an instant sales hit, and within a couple of weeks it had risen to the top of the Spiegel bestseller list for nonfiction. It occupied that position for three weeks, and remained in second place for another three weeks. It still holds a respectable fourteenth place.

Alexander spoke with many of those involved in the German policy response in September and October 2015, including Bavarian premier and prominent Merkel critic Horst Seehofer. The book reads as if Alexander was listening in when Merkel conferred by phone with Austrian chancellor Werner Faymann late on 4 September 2015, with both agreeing not to turn back refugees stranded in Hungary. Alexander appears to have been in the room when, shortly afterwards, Merkel rang her deputy Sigmar Gabriel, the leader of the Social Democrats, who took her call “while sitting on the couch at his home in Goslar.”

In fact, Merkel seems to have been the only key player who declined Alexander’s request for an interview. That makes Die Getriebenen a curiously unbalanced account: it is a book about Merkel, but it relies on the testimony of people, like Seehofer, who disagreed with Merkel all along, or who, like Gabriel, have been anxious to distance themselves now that Germany’s initial enthusiasm for welcoming refugee arrivals has dissipated.

Alexander is critical of Merkel’s response to the refugee crisis for three main reasons. He claims that her actions have been responsible for a number of disastrous outcomes: a fractured European Union; the rise of populist nationalism in Europe; divisions within Germany; and intensified terrorist threats. He argues that Merkel’s policy fix, namely the European Union’s deal with Turkey, didn’t solve the issue. And, most importantly, he tries to show that she had little understanding of the issues and no plan — that she made policy on the run, neither consulted her colleagues and international partners nor sought democratic legitimation, and let herself be carried away by her emotions. He singles out what he sees as two serious mistakes. One was the decision not to close the border on 13 September, although the means to do so were available at the time; the other was Merkel’s willingness to pose for selfies with asylum seekers during her visit to a hostel on 10 September.

In his indictment of the German chancellor, Alexander is not alone. In their much-discussed book Refuge, which appeared at the same time as Die Getriebenen, eminent refugee studies scholar Alexander Betts and economist Paul Collier accuse Merkel of having adopted the stance of the “headless heart” and having exacerbated rather than defused the crisis. According to Betts and Collier, Merkel’s decision not to close Germany’s borders “created powerful and disastrous new incentives,” prompting hundreds of thousands more to risk the journey to Europe. Betts and Collier, too, are scathing of the deal that Merkel negotiated with Turkey and, like Alexander, they hold her responsible for the Brexit vote. “The key decisions of the refugee crisis inadvertently resulted in the people of one of the largest member countries of the European Union deciding to leave it,” they write.

It’s hard to see how Merkel, rather than the British voters, can be blamed for Brexit (or even for the election of a right-wing populist government in Warsaw, another alleged result of her actions). Alexander’s attempt to establish a link between the mass arrivals of 2015 and the emergence of a terrorist threat in Europe is equally shaky; the fact that Anis Amri, the man responsible for the December 2016 attack on a Christmas market in Berlin, had arrived in Lampedusa five years earlier and had unsuccessfully claimed asylum can hardly serve as evidence for the claim that his crime was facilitated by the German government’s response to refugees and asylum seekers in 2015.

I would like to take Alexander’s claim that Merkel’s handling of the crisis led to a polarisation of German society more seriously. The events of autumn 2015 certainly provided oxygen to the AfD. Xenophobes do feel emboldened to speak their mind in public. And incidents of racist violence have increased dramatically over the past three years. But research suggests that the number of Germans who hold racist views has not dramatically increased; rather, many of them no longer feel too inhibited to raise their voices. On the other side of the political divide, more Germans are committed to solidarity with refugees. Germany’s response has polarised and politicised society, and that is not necessarily a bad thing.

If Merkel’s policy-making didn’t have these disastrous consequences, then much of the sting goes out of Alexander’s criticism of her day-to-day management of the crisis. It doesn’t entirely invalidate that criticism, though. There is little doubt that Merkel’s decision-making — in this instance, but also on other occasions — has not relied strongly on consultations with others. She may not have been able to foresee the consequences of her actions, and may have stumbled, without a clear plan, from one crisis to the next; here, too, I concede that Alexander’s analysis may well be correct.

I strongly disagree with his charge that Merkel’s policies were driven by events outside her control, and his implied criticism that her policy response was entirely opportunistic. As I have argued in previous essays in Inside Story, the event that was key to Merkel’s response was not the drowning of Alan Kurdi, nor the discovery of the bodies of seventy-one migrants in a truck in Austria, nor the demonstration of German Willkommenskultur at the Munich railway station, nor images of refugees in Budapest holding up signs showing pictures of “Mama Merkel.” Her crucial experience happened on 26 August 2015 in Heidenau.

On 21 and 22 August, a racist mob protested against a decision by the state government to accommodate more than 500 asylum seekers in a former hardware store in that small town south of Saxony’s capital, Dresden. To begin with, Merkel was not particularly concerned and showed no interest in visiting the Heidenau hardware store — or any other refugee hostel. On 24 August, her deputy, Social Democrat Sigmar Gabriel, visited Heidenau. He referred to the racists who had tried to attack the facility as Pack (scum) and demanded that they be locked up. He told reporters that it was important not to concede even one millimetre to “the most un-German characters I could imagine.” That same day, the Munich tabloid Abendzeitung appeared with a blank front page under the heading: “This is what the Federal Chancellor says.” The editorial explained why the space was left blank: “The nation would have listened to her, would have thought about it, would have discussed it. Would have, would have, would have, but alas has not.”

Two days later, Merkel finally visited Heidenau. She was shocked by what she found, and told locals opposed to the asylum seeker accommodation, who had earlier screamed “traitor” and “c–t” in her face, that there would be “no tolerance towards those who question the dignity of others.” Five days later, during the customary summer press conference, Merkel added: “There can be no apologies… The key is not to show even the slightest bit of understanding. No biographical experience, nothing that happened in the past, nothing, absolutely nothing justifies [their] stance.”

The decision to defy the Heidenau protesters and to insist that asylum seekers enjoy the same basic rights as citizens in Germany informed her response to the refugee crisis. Alexander concedes as much. But I would go one step further. Her insistence on upholding Article 1(1) of Germany’s Basic Law — “Human dignity shall be inviolable” — and providing a lesson to those who don’t respect the rights of others became a leitmotif that characterised her response to the refugee crisis. Rather than being opportunistic, rather than not knowing what she was doing, she was unerring in her defiance. Under her leadership, the Christian Democrats did not lurch to the right (as they had done in the early 1990s) in a vain attempt to gain the support of those opposed to foreigners in general and asylum seekers in particular.

When Merkel declared at her party’s annual congress in December last year that “a situation like that in the late summer of 2015 cannot, should not and must not be repeated,” she was referring less to her decision not to close the borders than to the often chaotic way in which that decision was implemented. At the same time, she has always been ready to tell Germans they ought to be proud of the country’s accommodation of 890,000 asylum seekers in 2015.

I suspect it will be Schulz’s downfall to have underestimated the sense of pride Germans feel when looking back at 2015. That sense of pride has become more pronounced since the election of Donald Trump. Germans like to tell themselves that they can do better — and are more relaxed about the challenges of globalisation — than the big brother on the other side of the Atlantic.


While I don’t share Alexander’s views about the outcomes of Merkel’s policies and about what drove them, I agree with him that Merkel’s response didn’t solve anything. The deal she negotiated with Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was bad to begin with, and for several months now it has threatened to unravel. So far, the benefits Turkey gains — very substantial monetary assistance, political clout and a commitment that a greater number of Syrians from Turkey will be resettled than the number of irregular migrants returned to Turkey from Greece — have seemed to sway Erdoğan not to rescind the deal. But with the relationship between Turkey and Germany nearing rock bottom, he may merely bide his time until closer to the German elections.

Here, Schulz is on to something. History may not repeat itself, but the prospect that hundreds of thousands of desperate people, encouraged by Turkey, may try to reach northern Europe is real. The question then becomes: would Germans want Schulz to deal with that crisis, or would they prefer a safe pair of hands? Would they really want somebody in charge who seems to get easily excited about impending catastrophes? If Schulz wants to draw on Alexander’s analysis, the question might also be: would Germans really want a government led by a party that two years ago, while ostensibly in power, had very little influence over the direction of Germany’s policy?

Merkel has not responded to Schulz’s over-excitement. She is on holidays. Currently, that could only be in her favour. •

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