German Paradox: How the Refugee Crisis Makes Merkel Stronger

20 january 2016

Ivan Krastev is Chairman of the Centre for Liberal Strategies, Sofia, Bulgaria, and Permanent Fellow at the IWM, Institute of Human Sciences in Vienna, Austria.

Resume: Merkel’s EU critics come to realize that any kind of “war” on Merkel can end up very badly for the European Union.

The unprecedented wave of sex assaults on women in Cologne on New Year's Eve raised doubts in Germany and abroad that Chancellor Merkel’s government has a vision of how to cope with the influx of refugees resulting from her open doors policy. In an interview with www.valdaiclub.com, Ivan Krastev, Chairman of the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Sofia, Bulgaria, shared his view of how the German government could tackle the unexpected domestic consequences of the refugee crisis and what Chancellor Merkel’s political future could be.

It is important to understand the essence of the crisis that Germany has been responding to, Krastev said in a telephone interview. “If the Dublin rules had been implemented, not a single refugee would have entered Germany but the European Union was going to face a major crisis because European periphery was going to be totally destabilized” the scholar said.

By inviting refugees to Germany Berlin broke the Dublin Agreement, but it had two major reasons to do that, Krastev said. “There was a major refugee pressure coming on the periphery of the EU, in countries like Greece and Italy, which had been hurt by the financial crisis and came to be very resentful to Germany because of the austerity policy that Germany was pushing for, and secondly the EU was on its way to lose its moral legitimacy not only in the eyes of the world but also in the eyes of some of its own citizens,” he said.

The problem with the peripheral states was that they “would feel totally betrayed by the European Union and, much more importantly, betrayed by Germany, so this is when Germany stepped in”, Krastev said. “With regard to the migration crisis, Germany did just the opposite to what they did during the euro crisis – this time nobody can blame them for selfishness.”

The other major motive for Berlin to invite the refugees was the calculation of risks. “The German government cannot be described as naïve,” Krastev said. “This is the logic that underlay their moves: if you want to close the border of the European Union at a certain point, the only way to do it in the legitimate way is to open it before that,” he explained.

“Can you imagine that you can negotiate with Turkey keeping more than two million refugees, if you are not going to have a single one in Germany?” Krastev said to illustrate his point.

Germany believed integration of the refugees would be good in the long term for the German economy, the scholar said. “If you look at the profile of the refugees, you will see that some of the refugees coming from Syria were from the secular middle class, and they are much better that the next wave of refugees expected to come from places like Afghanistan and Pakistan.”

Referring to the tasks faced by Berlin after the Cologne attacks, Krastev said the biggest problem for the German government now is to try to demonstrate that the situation is under control. “What infuriated a lot of people in Germany was not merely the attacks on women, but the fact that part of the media, part of the police tried to keep a low profile in the beginning. So, in a certain way, it was a revolt against political correctness,” he said.

According to Krastev, it is hard to predict how the situation will evolve. “As you see from the position of the German government, control over the external border of the European Union will be much more important, they will put in place a much tougher policy with respect to the refugees who break the law,” he said. “So those who are pushing for tougher policies as an alternative to what Merkel is doing will be surprised that the German government is going to do it anyway,” the scholar added.

At the same time, nobody can promise to the Germans and Europeans that refugee and migration pressure can be stopped and this is the biggest problem, according to Krastev. “It’s one thing to talk tough, and it is different to deliver on it,” he said.

“The majority of Germans is scared, because what they see is a very different and hostile culture, but on the other hand there is a huge fear of racist and xenophobic riots. And it is very difficult to predict how two these sentiments will play out,” he added.

An important consequence of the crisis is that it “gave a legitimate discourse to those who were skeptical and hostile to migrants to attack them within the liberal paradigm and not from the outside,” Krastev said. “It is one thing to say that you are against refugees - people fleeing war and being the victim, and it is totally different to use, say, the feminist discourse to say that we do not tolerate people who do not respect the rights of others,” he explained.

When asked about Chancellor Merkel’s political prospects in a post-Cologne Germany, Krastev said it was too early to write her off. “The reason, and a very important one, is that there is no clear political alternative. I don’t think the far-right can take the political initiative from Chancellor Merkel and, when it comes to the left, the Social Democrats are even more refugee-friendly than the Chancellor. So she has still managed to keep herself in the centre,” he elaborated.

Meanwhile, Merkel’s EU critics come to realize that any kind of “war” on Merkel can end up very badly for the European Union, Krastev said. “From this point of view, deepening of the crisis strangely enough strengthens the Chancellor’s position,” he said.

“Chancellor Merkel seems to have the feeling that she overcame the crisis in her own government and now, because she is going to move to a more conservative stance, she probably has a chance to sustain her position,” the scholar pointed out.

But it is going to be very a difficult process, he went on to say, because “unlike any other crisis, the refugee crisis touches on the voters’ emotions and is going to be much more volatile and shaped by events and not simply by policies – Cologne is the best example of this,” Krastev concluded.

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