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Europe’s refugee crisis could undo the EU

Published in Business Spectator (Melbourne), 10 September 2015

asylum“At least Germany is getting some good press recently,” a friendly businessman just told me a few days ago. “That’s quite a change from what we have seen before.”

What he was referring to was the European refugee crisis, in which the government of Chancellor Angela Merkel was suddenly regarded as humane, caring and compassionate — and not as brutal, egotistic and authoritarian as in its dealings with Greece.

The pictures of refugees receiving a warm welcome in Germany are indeed heartwarming. Thousands of volunteers are doing their best to provide the new arrivals, mainly from war-torn Syria, with drinks, toys or at least a smile. If this had been a PR campaign organised by the German Government, it could not have produced better images.

However, it was not a PR campaign by the government but genuine civic engagement for the refugees. It was compassion rather than calculation, and charity rather than policy. As such, this popular movement to welcome asylum seekers from some of the worst places on the planet deserves respect and praise.

Without diminishing these efforts by ordinary people, it is still necessary to ask questions about Germany’s role in the European refugee crisis. It is even more pressing to ask what it means for the state of the so-called European ‘Union’.

The rules state that refugees can only apply for political asylum in the first EU country they set foot in. These were effectively designed by Germany itself. These rules, known as the Dublin Regulation, were put in place in the hope that refugees would never reach Germany but instead remain in countries such as Italy, Greece or Spain. The Germans, meanwhile, felt relatively safe from southern migration waves for the simple fact that Germany does not have any Mediterranean beaches.

In theory, the Dublin Regulation remains in force, though it has now been suspended by Germany for Syrian refugees (but not for any other nationality — sorry if you happen to be from Somalia, Afghanistan or Iraq). In practice, it is obvious that the Dublin Regulation has become unenforceable as many European governments are happy to let refugees travel on to their final destination. The German government only started questioning the Dublin rules when it was clear that they were no longer being upheld.

The second issue to recognise is why Merkel’s government suddenly started to show more leniency towards Syrian refugees. There were ugly protests and violent attacks against refugee camps in Germany. It was these attacks that forced Merkel to take a position in the refugee crisis — something she had failed to do for months. Only under such pressure did Merkel finally position herself as a champion for refugee causes. She simply did not want to be seen as caving in to the xenophobic mob, which explains why she allowed more refugees to reach German soil.

Merkel’s tactical behaviour may have won her international praise and sympathy but it cannot pass for a proper strategy. The problem is that Germany still does not have a plan for how to deal with the hundreds of thousands of refugees it is expecting this year.

The third problem with Merkel’s policy in the refugee crisis is that it is shaped by German unilateralism. In dealing with its own refugees problem, Germany is not making it any easier to find a proper European solution.

Germany’s stance on refugees is problematic because it might encourage an even greater number of refugees. That is what Eastern European countries especially fear. They see Berlin’s leniency in asylum proceedings as an open invitation to potential migrants to enter Europe, and then transit to Germany via their countries.

The result is a fractured EU in which mainly the Germans accuse other European countries of not doing their fair share for refugees and asylum seekers and in which conversely the Eastern Europeans accuse Germany of making a difficult situation worse.

This is not the right place to decide which of the two sides is right. Both Germany and its Eastern European neighbours have good arguments on their side. It is more important to note is the way in which the spirit of pan-European cooperation has been brushed aside by a political crisis.

Just as in the European debt and monetary crisis, the refugee crisis is revealing how much European politics is dominated by national narratives and interests. There is only one difference between the two crises: the refugee crisis is more serious in a structural sense.

Because of its link to the fundamental freedom of movement within Europe, and because of its importance in the context of Europe’s value system, the question of dealing with refugees in Europe is not a technical question. It is not something that could be delegated to a European bailout fund or the European Central Bank. It is not one of those problems that could be inflated away or for which time can be bought.

Unlike in the euro crisis, it is European top politicians who have to find answers to the problems — not central bankers, bureaucrats or fund managers. Their helplessness in the face of the crisis, and their mutual reproaches and recriminations, only demonstrate how disunited the European Union really is.

What the Greek crisis and even the Ukraine crisis have not yet managed the refugee crisis may well achieve: to plunge the European Union into an existential crisis. It exposes how far apart EU members are, and how egotistical they are prepared to act in the pursuit of their own national interests.

Despite the favourable headlines of the past weeks, Germany is not blameless. In dealing with the European refugee crisis purely from the point of view of domestic necessities, it has weakened the position of the EU and put more pressure on its neighbours.

None of this is to criticise ordinary German citizens volunteering their help to newly arrived refugees. But the German government could well be expected to have a more strategic response to the European refugee crisis than to make some ad hoc decisions on refugee arrivals.

Perhaps the Germany we are seeing in the refugee crisis is not too dissimilar from the Germany we have seen in the euro crisis. It is still the same country that aims to prescribe its own ways to its neighbours.

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