Germany: Saving Refugees Comes with a Huge Political Price Tag

BERLIN—The influx of refugees into Germany is forcing its leaders to throw aside some of their long-held convictions and face reality. They are making nice with authoritarian Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to get him to accept more refugees. They are talking to Russian President Vladimir Putin so that he does not further fuel the crisis. They are even negotiating with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to stem the flood.

The refugee influx is now driving German politics, and not the other way around. Chancellor Angela Merkel and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier are in mitigation mode. Merkel has to quell furor and uprising within Germany as well as in Europe. She talks to rebellious mayors and local party elders in German communities, she gives television interviews to calm the German public, and she has become a target of radical right-wing protesters of the anti-Islam movement PEGIDA. On the European stage, she has paid a visit to Erdoğan in Istanbul and is trying to muster support for her policies in Brussels. Steinmeier is pulling strings behind the scenes, traveling from Tehran to Riyadh and Amman, desperately looking for a way out of the predicament, with only limited success so far.

And it is a genuine predicament. On one hand, there is an overwhelming sentiment among Germans that welcoming refugees is the right thing to do. On the other, there is a rising concern that doing the right thing may tear German society apart — and take the government with it. Never before in her ten years as chancellor has Merkel had to face a challenge of such dimensions.

Inside the Foreign Ministry, some are rubbing their eyes. “A few months ago during the Greek crisis Germany was the overly strict headmaster of Europe. We had an ugly face,” a high official said a few days ago. “Then, after welcoming the refugees, we became the superpower of friendliness. And today we are the superpower of naiveté.” But there are few lessons for Berlin to draw from other countries’ experiences. Germany has to figure out for itself what is right, if it’s not already too late.
When it comes to foreign policy, many observers know that turning back the clock is almost impossible, even if the stream of refugees dwindles at some point. Russia has taken charge of this opportunity to return to the world stage. With the conflict in Ukraine currently frozen, Moscow is using its involvement in the civil war in Syria to speed up the process of rapprochement with the West — whether the West likes it or not. And some have been quick to jump on that bandwagon. Germany’s Vice-Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, who like Steinmeier is a Social Democrat, even proposed lifting sanctions against Russia in late September. With this, Gabriel called into question what had been a cornerstone of German policy: that there be no wavering among Europeans and the United States on sanctions against Russia for its actions in Ukraine.

Lifting sanctions against Russia would basically hand a carte blanche to Putin. In other words, he would effectively be getting away with the annexation of Crimea and support for separatists in Eastern Ukraine. If that is the case, what is next on the list? Forgiving and forgetting Erdoğan for suppressing the freedom of speech in Turkey and his crusade against Kurds? Pardoning Assad for dropping barrel bombs on his people?

Merkel is still doing the right thing by not showing refugees the door. But she would be ill-advised to let her politics be driven by the refugee crisis. Giving in to dictators and authoritarian leaders will not make the world a better place — no matter how many refugees are saved.

Markus Ziener is a Non-Resident Fellow with GMF’s Europe Program, based in Berlin.
This Transatlantic Take was originally published on The German Marshall Fund of the United States' website here.

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