Director of the Europe Program, German Marshall Fund
When the sovereign debt crisis put the euro under pressure in spring 2010, Germany moved to the center stage of European affairs. Since then, Berlin’s role in Europe has become more important in various regards. With Berlin’s growing engagement for EU internal and external affairs, the criticism by its partners and from within Germany grew. Some have criticized German dominance in EU policy choices and the lack of close coordination with other capitals. Others have even questioned whether Berlin is still fully committed to European integration. Meanwhile, within Germany, the debate on European affairs has polarized.
The handling of the refugee crises has given rise to ample debates about Germany’s relationship with the EU and its partners. When German chancellor Merkel invited Syrians stranded in Hungary to come to Germany last August, this was broadly seen as an uncoordinated move that undermined the Dublin agreement. When Germany later asked other European partners to back an EU-wide quota system to distribute asylum seekers pouring into Southern Europe and making their way up North to Germany and a few other countries, some saw this as cynical.Indeed, by becoming the EU’s prime recipient country with 1.1 million refugees arriving in 2015, Germany changed its stance on migration policy.
Berlin has not explained its policy choices sufficient, and has not consulted systematically with European partners in all stages of the crisis. The German government suddenly asked for solidarity and tried to push some countries into taking their share of responsibility in welcoming asylum seekers who are fleeing a bloody war in Syria and growing instability in the region.
Motives for Germany’s moves were not only humanitarian. While Germany was criticized for undermining jointly agreed rules, Berlin in fact sought to prevent that integration in the field of justice and home affairs erodes. One of its key objectives was and is to prevent the reinstallation of borders within the EU, and the creation of a backlog of large numbers of refugees in countries that might be prone to political instability, such as Western Balkan countries or Greece.
Meanwhile, the German government maintained a liberal approach to immigration, pushing back on claims that there should be “upper limits” to the numbers of refugees Germany would take, but it toughened asylum rules and reduced provisions. Given the high numbers, Berlin decided to invest far more money than it had planned, to host, support and educate those who arrived in Germany.
The German public is divided over the question whether the government has taken it too far. On the one hand, and for more than a year now, Germany has witnessed an impressive degree of civil society engagement – citizens donate and engage as volunteers to handle the management on the ground where public services alone would be overwhelmed. A majority of Germans still thinks that the right to asylum should not be undermined, even if this brings challenges to Germany. But at the same time, an anti-muslim movement, Pegida, has shaped up, and an anti-migration right-wing populist party, Alternative für Deutschland, which was initially founded as an anti-euro party, now sits in eight regional Parliaments and will likely make it into the German Parliament in 2017.
To contain a backlash against its policy, it was crucial for the German government to effectively reduce migration flows, and the deal with Turkey that Merkel pre-negotiated for the EU, was a short-term solution for this. In the medium-term, the challenge is bigger. Berlin first of all has to ensure that the consensus in Germany remains pro-European and fully supportive of liberal values. It secondly has to regain its strength and legitimacy to lead EU policy choices and build trans-European consensus to strengthen the EU and its institutions as well as the single market with its four liberties as well as external policies. This will help the EU prepare for the challenges ahead that, if not handled well, may disintegrate the EU. The list of potential disrupters is impressive: a return of the Greek crisis, a vote of the UK to leave the EU, more terrorist attacks on EU territory, and, on the horizon, a much larger migration crisis, should e.g. sub-Saharan Africans move north or should Maghreb countries collapse. In any of these cases, strong leadership from member states is crucial. Germany is an important actor here, but will only be effective, if it can work with strong partners such as France.