Merkel’s U-turn on the migrants issue reveals new image of European hope
Mattia Baglieri 16 September 2015

From the New York Times to the Washington Post, from Der Spiegel to Le NouvelObs, the most prestigious international magazines have begun to call it “the U-turn”: we are talking about Angela Merkel’s approval of a new hospitality policy towards thousands of Syrian migrants (something like 800,000 asylum seekers in Germany during this 2015, according to Bloomberg who were (and still are) waiting at European Union’s land borders, escaping from the tremendous situation caused by the intensification of the Syrian conflict and the progresses made by the Islamic State in the control of new territories. Such a shift – even if opposed by Merkel’s antagonists on the right most populist side but also from the Bavarian CSU, the CDU’s sister party – may confirm a new image of the European Union as founded on memory and hope and with a refuse of using any severity towards people in need as well as of disowning Europe’s XX Century’s own history, according to leading international commentators.

It is exactly this reference to European own history which animates the reflections of Mr. Joschka Fischer, former green-party Germany’s Foreign Affairs minister (1998-2005), who wrote a long article for the magazine Project Syndicate, Europe’s Migration Paralysis (August 24th) in order to denounce the risk of a European Union’s break-up in case of variable-geometries’ and jeopardy policies in the conduct towards migrants seeking for asylum. According to Mr. Fischer, in fact, for many centuries, Europe was a continent plagued by wars, famines, and poverty. Millions of European citizens were driven to emigrate by their economic deprivation. They sailed across the Atlantic ocean to North and South America, and to places as far away as Oceania in order to avoid the previous misery and to seek a better life for themselves and their children. Of this past condition European government must keep memory – Fischer argues – by remembering that the European Union’s richness and democracy have been also due to the contribution of people who have been migrants themselves.

But, according to Fischer, this memory is supposed to remain very distant, if not entirely forgotten, if European States all together do not claim for a new European effort based on solidarity and for the planning of welfare measures able to really welcome who suffers more: «There are three distinct causes of the current migration to Europe: the Western Balkans’ continuing economic malaise; the turmoil in the greater Middle East; and Africa’s civil wars and conflicts. Intensification or expansion of the war in eastern Ukraine would quickly add a fourth cause of fight. In other words, all of the migration that Europe currently faces is rooted in grave crises in its own neighbourhood» Mr. Fischer enhances. Therefore, already as far as August 24th, it seems Mr. Fischer did not forget the manifold conflict situations around the world (especially in Sub-Saharan Africa, Libya and the Middle-East) which have deepened the migrants crisis this summer as well as the different answers the European national governments have posed to this issue, with Italy and Greece most affected by sea migrational flows and the Balkan States facing new land paths especially from Syria but demonstrating a very aggressive and intolerant face (let’s think about Hungary for instance) especially due to internal economic troubles, on the one hand, as well as to the already large presence in these countries of national minorities such as the Roma people, on the other.

A prominent political theorist like Michael Walzer, professor emeritus at Princeton University, in a contribution for Dissent. A magazine of politics and culture (The European Crisis, September 11th) complained too European Union’s inability to find a possible solution on the migrants crisis for example by deciding to assign different quotas of migrants up to each member State as suggested by Angela Merkel who has asked European member States to take part as soon as possible in an extraordinary summit before next week (namely by September 27th). But what Walzer regrets more is the unwillingness of richer countries to help those poorer countries – especially in the Middle-East itself, such as Lebanon and Jordan – which are now accommodating the refugees in the first phase of their migration route to the West: «The immense task of providing shelter for a night has fallen on countries like Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, where several million refugees are now housed or tented in camps with inadequate, most often radically inadequate, shelter, sanitation, and health services. Even for this, the costs are enormous, and richer countries, most of whom don’t want to see these people at their borders, have nonetheless failed to help them, or to help them enough, where they are» Walzer argues. In addition, this political unwillingness of the international community to provide a solution is going to foster illegal human traffic’s rackets which are unacceptable from the point of view of moral obligations towards the respect of human life as the primary right: «Illegal crossings are now a big business, which, like other businesses in our neoliberal world, produce many casualties. Stories of injury and death at the hands of traffickers have become commonplace, and they move us, though not very much. But the people won’t stop coming, so the crossings must be made legal and help provided on a scale that matches the wealth of the providers» Walzer adds.

If this latter opinion seems not very distant from Merkel’s own stance, so does the solution advocated by Walzer, and it does not differentiate those migrants coming from Syria or Libya from those coming from Sub-Saharan Africa in the moment when Walzer urges for a radical «trusteeship system» guided by the UN for all those countries which are currently unable to govern themselves, a system which – in Walzer’s view – must be similar to the League of Nations at the beginning of the last century or the NATO’s trust in the case of Kosovo, able if not to completely stop the migrant flows, at least to preserve human lives and to avoid murders and criminal activities concerning with the so-called “journeys of despair”.

Judy Dempsey, a Senior Associate of Carnegie Europe, focuses on Merkel’s turn towards refugees in her article for the Carnegie Europe Foundation Merkel’s Refugee Crisis (September 14th), by comparing this latter U-turn to the one Merkel made back in 2011 soon after Japan’s Fukushima nuclear accident when the German chancellor announced Germany would have come to an end in producing nuclear energy. Hence, according to Dempsey, these course changes seem making Merkel somehow an “emotional” leader able to get impressed by current international problems exactly in the very moment when they come to an unacceptable acme of crisis: «Merkel was shaken by what had happened in Fukushima. Her decision was a rare, spontaneous, and highly risky one, so out of character with Merkel’s reputation for excessive caution. The same could be said about her decision to open Germany’s borders to refugees. It was not based on tactics. Witness the unease inside her conservative bloc. It was not based on strategy. Germany was not prepared for such an influx and was not ready to integrate so many tens of thousands of newcomers. She did not inform her EU partners. It was as unilateral a decision as her move to phase out nuclear power. Why? “Compassion”» Dempsey concludes.

Not very influenced by Mrs. Merkel’s personal emotions towards migrants’ stories, appears Geir Moulson in his editorial for the Washington Post Migrant crisis adjust Merkel’s image, but style unchanged (September 13th), where he focuses on Merkel’s turn from “the guardian” of austerity in the case of Greek’s debt crisis to the “heroine” of refugees. Moulson refers to both crisis’ management with Merkel’s need to always re-affirm her political leadership with courageous choices founded simply «on what is moral and legally necessary, no more and no less» as Merkel herself has said. In Moulson’s view, Merkel’s decisions are always taken by observing the internal public opinion’s debates between different ideals and always after a long period of reflection and silence which can confirm Merkel’s precaution policy: «Merkel drew criticism at home over the summer for initially hesitating to address the migrant crisis, while many ordinary Germans pitched in to help refugees and concerns mounted over attacks on refugee accommodations. That played into a longstanding pattern of Merkel appearing to sit out contentious issues until she has read the political mood» Moulson writes.

Germany has however definitely breached the glass ceiling of a Europe unwilling to see how the migration crisis has ancient roots (especially to be founded in the IS’s progresses in Iraq’s and Syria’s territorial control and in the removal of the Gaddafi regime in Libya): this leads other Western countries too to submit to new criticism their own reception policies towards migrants. In this context, a surprising comment emerges from the New Republic pages, where in her article America Should Not Help Europe with the Migrant Crisis, Elaine Teng merely notes that the US have spent more than the rest of the world in humanitarian assistance of Syrians and their neighbours countries and hoping the US will continue to host only those refugees with a recognised valid documentation which can ensure they don’t have any affiliation with the terrorist groups such as ISIS as well as to prefer the resettlement of those coming from East-Asia such as Burmas and Bhutans.

The French press appears of a more enthusiastic advice, with the historian Michel Franza for Le Nouvel Observateur (Crise des migrants: l’Allemagne a retrouvé son autorité, September 11th) who notices that, with her decision, chancellor Angela Merkel is confirming Germany’s political authority exactly by turning European Union monetarist face, significantly based on ‘exclusion’, into the resurgence of an inclusive policy founded on ‘solidarity’. Furthermore, Dr. Franza polemically adds that Germany is still conducting the European diplomacy game with its government decisions regarding the migrant issue and that, on the contrary, France looks aside from the international concert’s moves. For this reason, Franza claims for a new shared vision of the asylum policy in the EU as a whole: «If the axis of Europe has moved from Paris to Berlin for several years, the refugee question opens a new era for Germany in the international arena, where France seems only residual in a political line now less negotiable. The future of Europe is at stake. But this historic challenge will require leaders, both females and males, with a shared historical vision of politics» Dr. Franza remarks.

Le Monde is even sharper with its editorial La France est-elle toujours une terre d’accueil? (September 14th) by the journalist Maryline Baumard who reports that, after Frau Merkel historical decision, this year asylum seekers will prefer to apply for a German residency permit than for a French one (about 60,000 migrants are supposed to be hosted in France vs. the 800,000 who are going to Germany). From an economic point of view, according to Baumard, this seems caused by the German economic stability’s perception and its need for labour in the coming decades, given its very declining population growth rate, which are among the key reasons that animate the willingness of well-educated people who desire to integrate quickly, like those leaving Syria.

From an Italian point of observation, if Professor Manlio Graziano (Sorbonne Paris IV) on La voce di New York in his article Merkel “la buona” ha capito, l’Europa ha bisogno dei migranti (September 7th) agrees in portraying chancellor Merkel as “the undisputed protagonist leader of this 2015’s summer” with her message depicting Europe as a State-community founded “on law” (and let’s remember that the meaning of the word “law” is not very different and it even includes the word “rule”), on the other hand, Ernesto Galli Della Loggia from the columns of Il Corriere della Sera, in his resounding editorial La memoria tedesca e la svolta di Angela Merkel (September 7th), considers Merkel’s U-turn as the continuation of the chancellor Willy Brandt’s emblematic gesture  when, in December 1970, he knelt in front of the Memorial of the Warsaw’s Ghetto victims: «Merkel’s deed precisely closes the circle – Galli Della Loggia argues –: after the forgiveness then asked to Jews, to its par excellence victims, today Germany even opens its arms to the most desperate of the earth, hence Germany becomes like a new Zion for the new persecuted».

But apart from the humanitarian point of view, business commentaries such as Bloomberg or the Financial Times have begun to focus also on the economic terms of the migrants crisis, stressing how the migrants’ flows could help Europe and especially Germany in turning this very crisis into an economic opportunity by reversing the demographic trend and pushing German economy with new labour forces able on the long term to cover the expensive costs of European welfare systems (let’s think for example to national health services and pensions): «Current short-term problems can turn into benefits in the long run» Pimm Fox, anchor for Bloomberg Business, remarks.

Western Europe remains a mirage for many, fascinated by the welfare policies European governments have been able to ensure after the Second World War. Maintaining financial rigor and economic conservatism on the one hand, and making each country responsible for safeguarding human life, on the other, seem nevertheless two sides of the same coin in a Germany keen to preserve its so-far unchallenged primauté in Europe but careful at the same time not to deny the lessons of its own history.  




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