Merkel’s Generous Migration Policy Splits Europe

Central and Northern European countries are reluctant to help Germany cope with asylum seekers.

German chancellor Angela Merkel attends a meeting of European People's Party leaders in Brussels, October 23, 2014
German chancellor Angela Merkel attends a meeting of European People’s Party leaders in Brussels, October 23, 2014 (EPP)

European Union interior ministers agreed on Tuesday to distribute 120,000 migrants across the bloc’s 28 member states. But although the number is a fraction of the hundreds of thousands seeking asylum this year, four Central European nations still voted against the plan while Finland abstained.

Championed by Germany, which is bearing the brunt of the migrant crisis, the new plan would distribute asylum seekers proportionately across countries. But it would not be mandatory.

Earlier this week, the ministers of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia expressed strong opposition, saying, “any proposal leading to the introduction of mandatory and permanent quota for solidarity measures would be unacceptable.”

Germany’s liberal Der Spiegel argues that Chancellor Angela Merkel’s generous immigration policy — which could see Europe’s largest economy admit up to one million asylum seekers this year — is undermining European unity. “German chancellors have always strived for consensus,” the magazine writes. “Merkel has now embarked on her own special path.”

The Central Europeans are the most adamant in refusing to let in more immigrants. Ethnically more homogenous than their Western neighbors, they had far more traumatic experiences with population transfers during and immediately after the Second World War.

Germany, by contrast, absorbed millions of refugees from the East after the war ended. In addition, it has around 1.5 million citizens of Turkish descent and another two million from countries that used to be in the Soviet bloc.

But other countries are wary as well. “Neighboring Austria applauds politely,” according to Der Spiegel, “but the country is happy when the refugees continue on to Germany.”

British prime minister David Cameron has said his country will take 20,000 — but only from Syria and over a period of five years.

Denmark, where the nationalist People’s Party got 21 percent of the votes in June’s election, temporarily closed a motorway and rail links with Germany this month in an attempt to stop migrants heading north to Sweden.

In the Netherlands, the Freedom Party is now the largest in the polls and advocates leaving the European Union altogether to stop what it sees as the imminent “Islamization” of the country.

In France, former president and conservative party leader Nicolas Sarkozy has said that Europe’s second largest nation may need to pull out of the free-travel Schengen Area to keep unwanted immigrants out.

He also argues that quotas will only make the crisis worse if they attract more asylum seekers.

Germany’s only real allies on the issue are the very countries that resist its austerity program of fiscal consolidation and liberalization in the eurozone: Italy and Greece. They have taken in more than 400,000 asylum seekers from across the Mediterranean this year, a record number.

The hundreds of thousands overwhelming Central Europe and seeking asylum in richer Germany and Sweden mostly journey from and across the Balkans.

The plan agreed on Tuesday falls well short of coping with the crisis and the Financial Times reports that the logistics of how the migrants will be distributed “are still to be worked out.”

Meanwhile, the mood is shifting in Germany. Many in Merkel’s conservative party think the chancellor is losing her grip on the situation, Der Spiegel reports. “They believe she made a generous gesture but now she is failing at administering the crisis.”

Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, leader of the junior Social Democrats in the ruling coalition, has said that now-welcoming attitudes toward newcomers could change dramatically if local governments are forced to choose “between caring for refugees and renovating a school or financing a swimming pool.”

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