Since German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s controversial decision to throw the doors of Europe open to millions of migrants in 2015, a growing minority of pundits have postulated migration will be the Iron Chancellor’s bane. Gratification narrowly eluded them in the last German election, and it seems that Merkel has once again clung onto power after the recent immigration conference. However, she should not rest easy. The summit has not changed the fact that immigration will remain the EU’s greatest headache.
Many have said that Merkel only ran for re-election to ensure her tenure, and the open-door immigration policy that characterised its last term got a favourable verdict in the pages of history. Months later, and the gravity of that error is starting to sink in. With the populist AfD surpassing the social democrats (SPD) in the polls, she should have realised that her political goodwill has run dry. Polling perfectly exhibits the gulf in priorities between the rulers and the ruled. Although immigration has plummeted this last year, 38 percent of EU citizens view it as the unions greatest challenge, even ahead of terrorism. Climate change, a favourite in Brussels, scored a measly 11 percent.
Immigration is a puzzling phenomena to the European political elite. Modern Europe likes to think it derives its success from the twin principles of open borders and a generous welfare state, but we’ve come to realise that these are intrinsically irreconcilable when put under stress.
The Franco-German memo released ahead of last weeks summit is a genuine attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable. It proposes a firm, but gentle, refugee policy. Borders will be guarded, but in a way that permits boat migration from Africa. Baseless asylum seekers will be sent back, if the countries that refuse to take them will take them. Member states will willingly distribute migrants between them, as they refuse to do. They will reduce asylum seekers, without narrowing the claims to asylum. And, of course, all this will be made possible by granting more powers to the EU, something EU member states have a track record of not handling terribly well. The contradictions are so apparent the memo verges on self-parody.
As far as the EU is concerned they have all the credentials to do this – after all, they were the ones responsible for ebbing the flow of migrants in 2015. Disregarding the fact that approximately 2.4 million migrants entered Europe in 2016, and a similar magnitude can be expected from 2017. Moreover, the aforementioned huddling masses have fallen under the purview of refugee processing, when the majority are in fact economic migrants from sub-Saharan Africa. With Europe presently processing around 80 percent of global asylum applications, one can empathise with the popular assessment that the status quo is untenable.
The solution the powers that be arrived at is less a solution than a band aid on a gunshot wound. With the only tangible compromise seemingly being Austro-German refugee transit centres, Merkel has been stripped of the initiative, now in the hands of her charismatic and pragmatic Austrian counterpart, the conservative Sebastian Kurz. His ‘coalition of the willing’ with a populist Italy and irredentist factions within Merkel’s own party seems to many to represent common-sense politics.
Immigration is a problem that never had to exist, but has become so toxic that it now engulfs every debate on the European project. Merkel and Macron do not realise the degree to which the open-door policy has eroded the EU’s legitimacy. They expect to be able to wade through it by doing what the EU has always done – improvising half-baked, short term solutions to avoid tackling the underlying problem, whilst never throwing their critics a bone. At this rate, the only way Merkel can regain the trust of her European partners is by donning a red cap and offering to build a wall. Because she refused to nip the problem in the bud, we’re way past the point of compromise. By advocating blind virtue over sensible compromise, Merkel has made Europe a nastier place, and that might be her lasting legacy. The irony is palpable.