MUGGED BY REALITY ?
“ A statesman must wait until he hears the steps of God sounding through events, then leap up and grasp the hem of his garment.” “A government must not waiver once it has chosen its course. It must not look to the left or right but go forward.” Two quotes from Bismarck on which Angela Merkel must surely have reflected during recent months. The leader of Europe’s most populous country, its strongest economy and dominant political force, Europe’s longest serving Head of Government, is facing the biggest political challenge of her career.
Her announcement in early September that Germany would accept all refugees from Syria seemed the right thing to do. Indeed she did not have much choice. The plight of migrants trying to get to Europe had dominated the media for months following the drowning of hundreds in the Mediterranean . Public interest and sympathy increased dramatically as the flow turned into a tide and as a new route in the eastern Mediterranean via Turkey and Greece became the preferred one. There was public horror and demand for action after the poignant images of a drowned toddler washed up on a Greek shore appeared. Throughout Europe thousands offered to help by materially assisting refugees, even offering to accommodate them in their own homes.
Europe’s official response had been a number of hand-wringing EU summits, long on rhetoric, short on solutions. Many EU countries were indifferent or signed up to token responses at best. Ireland at least joined a number of countries in sending a ship to aid in rescue operations off the Libyan coast and has committed, to date, to taking 4,000 refugees.
The increasing flow of migrants seeking to enter Europe was given impetus and augmented by the surge of refugees fleeing the worsening conflict in Syria. With no solution in sight, with ISIS controlling more and more of the country and with several million refugees already in neighbouring countries, the attraction of Europe, where some already had relatives, was obvious. The shorter and ostensibly safer sea route via Turkey beckoned and there was no shortage of people traffickers to facilitate.
So they came, in a human tide of up to ten thousand a day, arriving in Greece and pushing on through the Balkans towards more prosperous Northern Europe, the numbers supplemented by refugees from Iraq, Afghanistan, Eritrea and elsewhere. Media coverage was frenzied, with references to a flow of biblical proportions and to the greatest mass migration into Europe since World War Two. The magnet was Germany, Europe’s prosperous economic powerhouse, with a history of taking in refugees since the Nineties and which, given its demographics, needed to import labour.
Merkel’s announcement that there was no upper limit on the numbers with a right to asylum did little more than paraphrase refugee rights under the 1951 Refugee Convention but signalled that Germany would welcome those from Syria trekking north. The net effect was to intensify the flow. It was after all an opportunity for a future and a new life for anyone who could make it. Europe’s border controls, such as they were, buckled and were overwhelmed . The EU regulation that refugees should be tethered to the first country they entered collapsed. As the reaction began, with Hungary the first EU state to break ranks and erect border fences, and others following, the push was on to enter before the door slammed shut.
Five months later the issue has morphed into one with the potential to derail or re-orient the direction of the EU, bringing down Merkel in the process. In a domino effect, border controls are being reintroduced in a number of countries. Roughly a million refugees arrived in 2015 in Germany and Sweden alone, the other country to operate an open door policy. Winter has reduced but by no means stopped the refugee flow, with, as I write, new arrivals in Germany running at 3,000 per day.
Merkel has stuck to her guns, but is now on the defensive, under mounting political pressure from her own party, the opposition and the German states, who, with resources already strained to the limit, fear being overwhelmed by a new influx. Sweden is no better. The right to asylum looks increasingly like an albatross for both countries but one they cannot shrug off. Placebo measures to enforce asylum provisions strictly, with rapid turn around and deportation of those deemed not political refugees seem unlikely to have much practical effect. Repeated calls for EU solidarity and more burden sharing, have so far fallen on deaf ears.
It’s not simply about numbers, whatever the short term pressure on resources. A Europe of five hundred million could easily absorb last year’s million, and the anticipated one and a half million plus in 2016. Certainly a reduced and more orderly flow would help but the simple fact is that public enthusiasm and sympathy for the refugees has been waning across Europe.
There are reasons for this. The wealthier regimes in the Middle East are seen as doing nothing to help ( Saudi Arabia offered to build 200 mosques in Germany!), and adding to the problem by waging war by proxy in Syria. Many of the arrivals are perceived not as genuine refugees but rather as economic migrants seizing the opportunity to enter Europe. A disproportionate number of the arrivals appear to be young single men. European right wing and populist parties have cashed in, playing up the cultural and religious differences of the newcomers and suggesting that European democratic and liberal values are under threat.
Public fears were given impetus after the November terror attacks in Paris with the revelation that several of the attackers could have been recent arrivals from Syria, in fulfilment of an ISIS threat to infiltrate terrorists among the refugees. This was hardly totally surprising -most people recognise that it is impossible to guard against every fanatic – but, with European border controls seen as down or ineffective, with European tourists being targeted by suicide attackers elsewhere ( most recently in Istanbul) , the Paris massacre helped stoke fears and focussed suspicion on migrants as a whole.
Then came New Year’s Eve, with reports of sexual harassment of women by North African men in Cologne and several other German cities, attacks which police initially covered up fearing a racist backlash. The harassment attacks were explicable but not excusable. Take a large group of young men, newly arrived in Germany, linguistically and culturally different, in particular in their attitudes towards women, and tolerated, but not necessarily welcomed with open arms, in their new host country. Place them as outsiders and onlookers at New Year festivities where local men and women are celebrating and you have a recipe for disorder. So it proved, sparking outrage not confined to feminist groups. Subsequent foolish suggestions that European women should take precautions in dress in their home countries and avoid going out alone did not help.
As of now Merkel has lost the battle for public opinion. With refugees continuing to arrive, with the associated costs of catering for them rising, with European partners indifferent, there is no easy solution. God’s footsteps cannot be heard. Watch this space.