Germany is supposed to have huge influence in Central Europe where countries depend on it — Europe’s largest economy — for investment and manufacturing jobs. Yet Chancellor Angela Merkel has failed to translate this influence into support for her generous immigration policy.
Hungary has taken the lead in resisting Merkel’s appeal to welcome refugees with open arms. After constructing a fence on its border with Serbia to keep immigrants out, the country this weekend sealed its frontier with fellow European Union member state Croatia.
The move came after Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán failed to convince other European leaders in Brussels last week to toughen controls on the bloc’s outer border with Turkey.
A spokesman for his government said more than 380,000 asylum seekers had crossed into Hungary this year and the total could reach 700,000 for 2015. The migrants include refugees from the Syrian civil war and residents of poor Balkan nations, like Albania and Kosovo, seeking better opportunities in the West.
Most travel on to Germany which expects to receive up to one million asylum applicants this year. The cost of processing and sheltering this record high number could reach €10 billion.
The closing of the Croatian-Hungarian border has forced refugees to seek entry into Austria and Germany through Slovenia instead. That country has now limited the influx to 2,500 per day. On the Croatian side of the border, immigrants are stuck in trains. Some were forced to spent the night outside in the rain. Further south, in Serbia, others are waiting in busses.
Hungary’s crackdown is largely backed by the other Central European states: the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia. All four have resisted the European Commission’s plans to distribute migrants proportionately across the bloc’s 28 member states. Slovakia said it would only take in Christian refugees, not Muslims.
Although the German public is still largely supportive of Merkel’s open-door policy, discontent inside her conservative party has been growing.
Earlier this month, local officials from the ruling CDU complained that the federal immigration policy was “not in line with either European or German law, nor does it reflect the CDU’s program.”
In Bavaria, the wealthy southern state that borders Austria and the Czech Republic, the chancellor’s conservative sister party has broken ranks entirely. Horst Seehofer, the party leader and state premier there, praises Hungary for “securing” Europe’s outer borders and warns that Bavaria might have to take emergency “self-protecetion” measures if Berlin fails to stem the flow of asylum seekers.
The Social Democrats, the other party in Merkel’s ruling coalition, have voiced disquiet as well. Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel warns that 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.”
Germany absorbed millions of refugees from the East in the aftermath of World War II and now has around 1.5 million citizens of Turkish descent and another two million from countries that used to be in the Soviet bloc.
Hungary, Poland and Slovakia, by contrast, are ethnically more homogenous than their Western neighbors and had far more traumatic experiences with population transfers during and immediately after the Second World War.
They are not the only Europeans who are wary of letting in more immigrants from especially Muslim, however.
In Denmark, the Netherlands and Sweden, nationalist parties that oppose immigration have seen their poll numbers increase. In France, former president and conservative party leader Nicolas Sarkozy has said that Europe’s second-largest economy may need to pull out of the Schengen visa-free travel zone if that is the only way to cope with the crisis.
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 are bearing the brunt of the crisis on the Mediterranean. More than 400,000 migrants have made the dangerous boat crossing to Europe this year alone.