Column: One year ago, Angela Merkel stood up for refugees in Europe

Column: One year ago, Angela Merkel stood up for refugees in Europe

It was an innocuous-sounding statement via Twitter that would come to rock Europe. Issued in the dead of night by Germany’s Office for Migration and Refugees, it simply announced: “We are at present largely no longer enforcing #Dublin procedures for Syrian citizens.”

When the news sunk in that Germany was no longer going to deport Syrian refugees fleeing terror in the Middle East, it triggered a million-man march through Europe as Syrian refugees, joined by Iraqis, Afghanis and many other nationalities, rushed to claim their spot in Europe’s richest nation.  Ignoring those who called her a “traitor” and a “whore” to her face, Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, did not hesitate in welcoming the rising tide of stateless humanity. “We can do it”, she said – more a statement of fact (Germany could indeed afford it) than an exhortation.

For a few heady days, hearts soared across Europe as tens of thousands of volunteers lined the railway platforms of Germany to welcome new arrivals from Vienna and Budapest. Like Obama’s “yes we can”, Mrs Merkel’s, “we can do it” took on a life of its own.  It didn’t take long before it was used against her. As the political reality of accepting vast numbers of refugees began to hit home, Mrs Merkel was pictured on the cover of Der Spiegel magazine framed in a blue-and-white Mother Theresa wimple. “Mutter Angela,” said the headline.

It was not a canonisation of Europe’s most powerful woman, but a dig at the German leader’s apparently reckless political pietisms. What has happened since has been as much a “Europe crisis” as it has been a “migrant crisis”. The fallout from Mrs Merkel’s grand gesture has stretched east-west unity to breaking point and fuelled a continent-wide rise in populism, of which Brexit is just the most obvious expression. But a year on, with the raw flows of migrants stemmed thanks to a realpolitik deal with Turkey and unilateral closure of the so-called Western Balkan Route, how should we view Mrs Merkel’s stand on migration now?

The first thing to say is that Mrs Merkel made several grave miscalculations by throwing open the gates of Germany with so little forethought. She apparently failed to anticipate how quickly, in the age of social media, that message be transmitted back to the several million Middle East refugees who unsurprisingly preferred the prospect of a future in Germany to hopeless limbo in Turkey. As a result, they came in their hundreds of thousands – nearly 200,000 arrived to the Greek Islands in October alone – many bearing pictures of Mrs Merkel, telling the TV crews and border guards alike that “Angela said we could come”.

Mrs Merkel also grossly underestimated the willingness of other European countries, particularly in the ethnically homogenous east, to accept refugees and heed her repeated calls to live up Europe’s founding values of human dignity, liberty, and democracy. Without Germany’s vast budget surpluses, demographic incentives and profound sense of obligation to right the wrongs of the 20th century, those countries simply said “no” – to the refugees, to Brussels’s imposed migrant quotas and indeed to the very notion of western multi-culturalism they had implicitly signed up to at enlargement.

Lastly, and most worryingly, the sudden overloading of the system at a time when Europe is facing its longest period of economic stagnation since the Great Depression fuelled the very forces of illiberal populism that Mrs Merkel has devoted her entire political life to overcoming.

For all these things Mrs Merkel is guilty as charged, but on one fundamental point she got it profoundly right. She dared to ask Europe what kind of continent it wanted to be when other leaders – Cameron, Hollande, Orban, Renzi and co – shied away from that responsibility.  She posed the question that now confronts Europe: do we want to live in a continent where human dignity and the rights of minorities are upheld – the shining city to which Mrs Merkel aspires – or do want to live in a world of nationalism and intolerance, where darker forces prevail?  Do we want to live in a world where Nigel Farage stands in front of his infamous “breaking point” poster; a world where an MEP from Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party feels free to suggest attaching pigs’ heads to the country’s border fences to “deter [migrants] more effectively”?

It is the same world that could very well elect Norbert Hofer from Austria’s far-Right Freedom Party president of Austria this October and sees proud Islamaphobes like the Netherlands’ Geert Wilders topping the polls. As next year’s racially charged French election looks set to demonstrate, whether or not Marine Le Pen wins or loses, it is a Europe that now visibly risks shrinking back into narrow, nationalist ways that many had fondly imagined had been put behind us. It is a Europe that will be less functional, less open to trade and ultimately less prosperous.

 It is true Mrs Merkel didn’t always get the answers she wanted, but unlike so many other leaders in Europe, she did dare to pose the question. History must give her credit for that.

PETER FOSTER – The Telegraph