The Irish Times view on the refugee crisis five years on: how Merkel got it right

By welcoming more than one million people into their country, Germans tapped into their country’s structural strength and stability

At the peak of the refugee crisis in 2015, Chancellor Angela Merkel, in a rare and spontaneous display of emotional honesty, rallied her self-doubting electorate with the slogan: “Wir schaffen das” – we can manage this. Photograph: Hayoung Jeon/ EPA

At the peak of the refugee crisis in 2015, Chancellor Angela Merkel, in a rare and spontaneous display of emotional honesty, rallied her self-doubting electorate with the slogan: “Wir schaffen das” – we can manage this. Photograph: Hayoung Jeon/ EPA

 

Beckett would struggle to describe how Germany dealt with the 2015/2016 refugee crisis. The writer praised persistence and the courage to fail better. Most Germans expected to fail five years ago but didn’t. They succeeded better than they expected.

At the peak of the crisis, Germany’s cautious chancellor Angela Merkel, in a rare and spontaneous display of emotional honesty, rallied her self-doubting electorate with the slogan: “Wir schaffen das” – we can manage this.

And they did. By welcoming more than one million people into their country, Germans tapped into their country’s structural strength and stability. Transcending a deep-rooted cultural pessimism, Germans prioritised pragmatism over their traditional rules-based approach. The priority was to give desperate people from Syria and Afghanistan the prospect of a new life.

Other EU countries looked away, or fished migrants from the Mediterranean, dried them off and handed them to other countries to feed and house. The right to say no to migrants, these countries insisted, is a national competence. This fundamental battle rolls on, five years later, though Germany hopes to use its EU presidency to agree a reformed, harmonised EU migration policy. The odds are not good: migrants are still drowning, the Greek island camps remain overcrowded and EU member states are distracted by the shocks of a global pandemic.

In the last decade of crises, Europe was fortunate to have someone like Merkel at the tiller to shape rational policy decisions – a political skill that is going out of fashion. But the breathless pace of events, combined with her instinctive skill for tactics over strategy, has created no national – or European – narrative in which to frame events, and explain the eventual response. Instead, the reaction to each crisis – currency, migration or public health – saw the Merkel administration present its emergency decisions as being without alternative – Alternativlos.

They may have made the right choices, but stifling debate and framing dissenters as irresponsible threw a lifeline to the far-right Alternative für Deutschland. Merkel’s health minister admitted this week that Germany’s lockdown of shops was a mistake. That is a gift to the people attacked from all quarters for demonstrating last weekend in Berlin against Covid-19 restrictions.

As in the migration crisis, resistance is building among people who resent their lives being upended in what they see as an arbitrary fashion, with little debate on alternatives, by pandemic measures emerging from a policy black box. In this age of anxiety, confidence-boosting exhortations are good.

More important is explaining how decisions are made and measures chosen. And why they will help us succeed – or fail – better.

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