How the refugee crisis created two myths of Angela Merkel

When Angela Merkel steps down as chancellor after Germany’s elections later this month, the tributes will centre on her role as the figurehead of western liberalism; an island of stability, caution and openness in an era marked by turbulence and far-right reaction. She will be remembered “for serious work, stable leadership and having a gift for political compromise”, wrote Ishaan Tharoor in the Washington Post last week. When she faced off against Donald Trump after his inauguration in 2017, some newspapers dubbed her the new “leader of the free world”.

Fundamental to this image is the intervention she made in late summer 2015, at the height of Europe’s refugee crisis. “Wir schaffen das” – we’ll manage this – was Merkel’s public statement as thousands of people, mainly from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, were making their way through Turkey, Greece and the Balkans to western Europe. By declaring Germany – and, by extension, Europe – open to refugees, she was making a bold, pragmatic statement of intent.

Yet two contradictory myths have grown up around the “wir schaffen das” moment, both of which overstate the significance of her intervention and mischaracterise its effects. The populist right blames Merkel for prompting one of the largest mass migrations in the continent’s recent history, a “catastrophic mistake”, as Trump later put it, that would undermine Europe’s security and identity through an overwhelming foreign intrusion.

Liberals, meanwhile, treat it as a triumph. Merkel’s stance, in this telling, held true to the values that supposedly underpin the European project – the EU, after all, is the only geopolitical bloc to have been awarded the Nobel peace prize – and showed that a crisis could be met with compassion.

In truth, Merkel’s contribution to Europe’s politics of immigration went much further than “wir schaffen das”, and her legacy is far more mixed. As an investigation by Die Zeit has since shown, “wir schaffen das” did not, for the most part, encourage migration: it acknowledged a reality that already existed.

The refugee crisis had already been under way for several months by the summer of 2015, with people motivated to travel more by what was pushing them from their homes than the reception they expected in Europe. Syrians in 2015, for instance, were facing a worsening conflict, decreasing food rations from aid agencies, and employment bans in Lebanon and Turkey, where most Syrian refugees have settled. When Germany announced in early September 2015, a few days after Merkel’s speech, that it would keep its borders open to refugees who were heading westwards from the Keleti railway station in Budapest, people had been travelling for months already.

What’s more, Europe’s “crisis” – the chaotic and deadly arrival of people not just through Greece but across the central Mediterranean from Africa – was in large part a product of the continent’s own border policies, which had closed off safe routes to asylum and funnelled people into dangerous bottlenecks. Germany under Merkel, as the EU’s most powerful member, played a key role in creating the problem. It helped maintain a system in which border security was given higher priority than refugee reception – between 2007 and 2013, according to Amnesty International, the EU spent €2bn on the former, and only €700m on the latter. Likewise, Merkel’s insistence on punitive austerity as the solution to Europe’s earlier economic crisis fatally weakened the capacity of frontline states such as Greece to respond to greater numbers of refugees at a crucial moment.

Even the moment of openness that “wir schaffen das” expressed was short-lived, with Germany soon working to rebuild and strengthen Fortress Europe. By mid-September 2015, Germany had introduced temporary controls on its border with Austria, the beginning of a process that would eventually see migration routes through south-eastern Europe closed off. A few months later, Merkel was a leading proponent of the 2016 deal that effectively trapped many refugees in Turkey, while Germany has done nothing to challenge the EU’s authoritarian turn that has made search and rescue in the Mediterranean almost impossible. Merkel may have been a bulwark against far-right domination of European politics, but the price was to absorb some of the far-right’s agenda on border control.

Related: Europe’s reputation as a cosmopolitan haven has been exposed as a mirage | Hans Kundnani

Yet while Merkel did not radically alter the European course of the crisis, she shifted the tone of debate at a crucial moment. Fleeting as it was, this mattered. Its effects can be seen in the way German society accommodated the 1.7 million people who claimed asylum there between 2015 and 2019. Despite the dire predictions from the right, this has been an undoubted success: as the Guardian’s own reporting has shown, more than half of those who arrived are in work and pay taxes, while more than 80% of refugee children say they feel as if they belong in Germany and are welcome. The xenophobic backlash, playing on fears of crime or terrorism, is real, but it is something that can be – and is being – challenged.

Britain’s government makes an instructive comparison: even as it proclaims its generosity towards a small fraction of the people currently trying to flee Afghanistan (the official scheme promises to resettle 20,000 people over five years), this is drowned out by its authoritarian posturing. The latest of these, a promise to “turn around” migrant boats in the Channel, one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, risks deadly consequences if it ever comes to pass. The response to recent Afghan arrivals – sustained by a huge volunteer effort – itself reveals the shoddiness of Britain’s asylum system: why is it being left to volunteers and charities to provide essentials such as clothes?

Ultimately, Merkel’s legacy tells us less about one politician’s actions than about what can be done if a society has the will to help people in need. That is a collective effort. But the myths and symbols politicians trade in have the capacity to enable such efforts, or to destroy them. In Britain, it often feels like the debate on asylum is dominated by a competition to see who can sound the toughest: between politicians who enthusiastically push a hard-right agenda, and those who purport to be liberals but take a tough stance because they think it’s what the public wants.

This goes beyond the peculiar cruelties of our current government: it is the product of years of xenophobia encouraged by the rightwing press, and will take a huge effort to unpick. But Merkel should remind us, however inconsistent her actions might have been in reality, that there is always an alternative.

  • Daniel Trilling is the author of Lights in the Distance: Exile and Refuge at the Borders of Europe and Bloody Nasty People: the Rise of Britain’s Far Right

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