Chancellor Angela Merkel faces three regional elections in the German states of Saxony-Anhalt, Baden-Weurttemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate that are being described, by various observers, commentators and news outlets, as a ‘test of support’ for the Chancellor’s stance on the refugee crisis.
‘Test’ is one way to describe the process, I suppose. Whilst frau Merkel might wish it to be otherwise, the sudden rise of the anti-establishment and populist AfD (Alternative für Deutschland), which is presenting its regional campaigns as a national referendum on Germany’s open-door response to the crisis and which is polling well above the 7.1% of the vote it achieved in the European elections of 2014, is pulling the narrative away from regional affairs and on to questions of national policy.
International policy, as well. AfD, which is the political wing of the Pegida movement in all but name, is but the closest to home of the myriad of anti-immigration, anti-EU parties that are now in bloom across Europe, resplendant in colours of both the Left and the Right. Syriza and Golden Dawn in Greece, the Jobbiks in Hungary, the FPO and the Freedom Party of Austria, National Front in France, UKIP and roughly half the Tory cabinet at home – the political allegiances, goals and methods of each may differ drastically; what they all seem to have in common, and what those that tend toward anti-immigration sentiments certainly have in common, is their opposition to Angela Merkel and the policies of the CDU-led coalition government in Germany.
Angela Merkel is the public face of Germany’s official response to the migrant (or refugee) crisis. Given the unity of the opposition to that response across the right and the far-right, anti-Merkelism seems a fitting and necessary addition to their labels.
There is an essential qualifier to what I am about to say and I beg that you withhold your judgement until you have seen it: they are right to be opposed to Merkel and the German response.
This is not to say that any position defined by xenophobia is correct. This is not to give credence to any argument that is by its nature anti-migrant. But it is to acknowledge that migration policy should be open to discussion (and the argument that the encouraging of mass-immigration is itself an anti-migrant position), and it is to acknowledge that the imposition of policy without an elected mandate, nationally or Europe-wide, is anti-democratic. They are right, then, in that this issue sheds light on the cracks in the foundations of the European Union; cracks that are becoming fissures as the weight of Germany’s influence continues to grow.
You might, as I do, feel by instinct that we should help the poor and the desperate and the destitute. You might, as I do, feel a profound anger at an international community that has shown itself to be powerless to stop the savagery and the barbarism of the conflict in Syria, to which we have contributed bombs and planes and very little else. You might feel, as I do, that the promise by our own government to take in 20,000 refugees over five years is at best a negligible one.
We would, then, share the conviction that these refugees deserve far better than their lot.
But to take that conviction and hide behind it, to throw in the faces of those opposed to mass-migration the accusation that they are unfeeling and uncaring, is to be uncritical. To praise Chancellor Merkel’s decision to open Germany’s borders is to give her credit that she does not deserve, based on the presumption that it is something that it’s not.
That decision, which I suspect was intended solely (or mostly) to win popular support for the CDU in Germany, represents the impossibility of unilateral action in the context of a continental political union. What it amounted to was the creation of a policy in Germany, for German party-political interests, which has now been imposed upon every other member state in the European Union, especially those in what has become known as the Balkans Route, without any form of democratic debate, without their consent, and without any consideration for their ability to deal with its consequences.
It shows the arrogance of a continental power, on whose industry and economy the European Union has been built, deeming either that its own interests trump all other concerns or that what is in its own interests must, by definiton, be in everyone else’s interests, too.
This arrogant assumption of power is, in fact, no assumption at all. Power in both the Eurozone and the European Union has never been properly codified to rest in any one elected body; it has its own freedom of movement and, like money, like people, it is drawn to the one place power is known to coalesce of its own volition: power itself. Germany, by virtue of the strength of its economy, is the power in Europe. As such, it has become not only the economic hub but also the political centre of the continent. Dealings between EU member states, and between the EU and other nations, happen through Germany with the official apparatus serving as nothing but a seldom-used fig-leaf.
Greece, which harbours the firsts ports to which migrants and refugees arrive from Turkey on their way to Germany, provided just one of a series of examples of Germany’s monopoly on power. When Syriza swept to electoral victory on the promise of rejecting and then reversing the economic doctrine imposed upon them by the Troika, it was Germany which led the counterrevolution. It demanded control of the Greek economy. When it failed, it demanded the imposition of its own austerity doctrine on the Greek state, effectively using different words to make the same demand.
The charismatic Yanis Varoufakis, during his brief stint as Syriza’s finance minister, primarily dealt not with members of the Eurogroup (comprised of the finance ministers of those countries within the Eurozone) but with Wolfgang Schauble, the German finance minister and architect of the ‘deals‘ imposed upon Greece that Syriza had been committed to reversing. When Varoufakis attempted to discuss the changes proposed by Syriza, he was met with a steadfast refusal to compromise. Shauble’s view was, according to Varoufakis, that “‘I’m not discussing the programme – this was accepted by the previous [Greek] government and we can’t possibly allow an election to change anything.”
Varoufakis was subsequently removed from the negotiating team, resigning from his post in the Syriza government shortly afterwards, and Schauble got his way.
Greece now has unemployment standing at 25% and it remains to be seen whether it will be able even to service the debt on the last round of bailout funds. Its economic policy, created in and imposed by Germany, leaves it in an untenable position. And now it is expected to shoulder the burden of Germany’s immigration policy, even as that same policy has led to countries along the Balkans route invalidating the Schengen agreement by unilaterally closing their borders. That move has been condemned by frau Merkel, but yet again it is a display of arrogance. Germany is allowed to unilaterally set the immigration policy of the European Union (and beyond – Macedonia has been a candidate for accession since 2005, is not yet a full member, but is amongst those with new fences along its borders) but others, like Hungary, are not allowed to do the same.
Germany is, meanwhile, leading the team negotiating with Turkey on the issue of migration. The vast majority of boats arriving on the borders of the now-dead Schengen zone leave port in Turkey for an often treacherous journey across the Aegean. Given the nature of the Erdogan government, it would be very difficult to imagine the Turkish negotiating team doing anything other than exploiting the migration crisis to suit their own ends: visa-free travel for Turkish citizens within the EU in advance of fasttracked admission to the Union proper. And, given the nature of the Erdogan government, it is tempting to ask quite how committed Turkey is to stopping the boats given that each one serves their political purposes quite nicely.
Any deal struck between Germany and Turkey with provisions for faster Turkish integration with the EU will be yet another example of EU policy set and pursued by Germany without even the pretense at democratic negotiation with its supposed equals.
This is the state of things as they are and there is no hint of any improvement to come. The migration crisis, the nature of which warrants an article of its own, is playing into a crisis in Europe; a political union in which the only demos with any power are the German people. It is they alone whose votes, under the current system, have any real influence on European policy. We have our own referendum to focus on, but should we vote to stay, there will be another referendum soon afterwards; a referendum on the nature of the European Union under the guise of a German general election.
The domestic debate in Germany, a debate of domestic policy, is then not domestic at all. Pegida and the AfD, along with parties like the Greens, represent a continent’s worth of dissatisfaction with a deaf establishment. And it is a damning indictment of the structure of the European Union, a provocateur of the extremes to which the disenfranchised will become susceptible, as well as the complete and final proof of its lack of anything even resembling a democratic process, that burden of responsibility now rests almost entirely on the shoulders of German voters.
You may interpret it as you like when I say that it is a burden we should do our part to alleviate them of.