European Affairs

Germany: Saving Refugees Carries Huge Political Price     Print Email

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What long has been completely unthinkable has now become part of the German foreign policy mix. Asking wannabe Tsar Vladimir Putin to not fuel the refugee crisis? Making nice with authoritarian Recep Tayyip Erdogan to get him to accept more refugees? Even negotiating with dictator Bashar al-Assad to stem the flood? Germany’s leaders are facing reality – and throwing overboard long held convictions. The influx of refugees is driving politics in the chancellery and at the Foreign Office at Werderscher Markt. Only a few month ago it was the other way around. Then there were clear strategic guidelines defining the way to go, even a number of red lines that in no circumstances were to overstep. Not anymore. Why? Because this tide has the potential to topple a government.

Chancellor Angela Merkel and her Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier are in mitigation mode. Merkel has to quell furor and uprising within Germany as well as in Europe. She talks to revolting mayors and local party elders in German communities, she is giving TV interviews to calm the German public. And on the European stage she is trying to muster support for her policy. Steinmeier is doing exactly the same: Pulling strings behind the scenes, desperately trying to find a way out of the predicament.

And a genuine predicament it is: On the one hand there is an overwhelming sentiment among Germans that welcoming refugees is the right thing to do. On the other hand there is a rising concern that doing the right thing may tear Germany’s society apart – and take the government with it. Never before in her ten years at the helm of the government, has Angela Merkel faced a challenge of such dimensions.

Inside the Foreign Ministry some are rubbing their eyes: “A few month ago during the Greek crisis Germany was the overly strict headmaster of Europe, we had an ugly face”, a high official said a few days ago. “Then, after welcoming the refugees, we became the superpower of friendliness. And today”, he continued, “we are the superpower of naiveté.” Against this background: Is the look across borders giving a lot of guidance of what to do? Not really. The outside signals are confusing at best. Germany has to figure out for itself what is right – if it’s not already too late.

When it comes to foreign policy many observers know that turning back the clock is almost impossible – even if the stream of refugees may dwindle at some point. Russia has taken charge of the opportunity to return to the world stage as a player.   With the conflict in Ukraine currently frozen Moscow is using the involvement into the civil war in Syria to speed up the process of rapprochement with the West – whether the West likes it or not. And some are quick to jump on that bandwagon. Germany’s Vice chancellor Sigmar Gabriel (like Steinmeier a member of the Social Democrats and partner of Merkel’s CDU) at the end of September even was proposing to lift the sanctions against Russia. With this, Gabriel not only broke a taboo. He was calling into question what used to be a cornerstone of the policy towards Russia: That there is no wavering among Europeans and the U.S. when it comes to sanctioning Russia’s violation of international law in Ukraine.

Lifting sanctions against Russia means handing a carte blanche to Putin. In other words: He will then get away with the annexation of the Crimea and supporting the separatists in Eastern Ukraine. If that is the case then what is next on the list? Forgiving and forgetting Erdogan for suppressing the freedom of speech in Turkey and also his crusade against Kurds? No hard feelings for Assad any more who continues dropping barrel bombs on his people?

Angela Merkel is still doing the right thing by not showing refugees the door. But she would be ill advised to let her politics been driven by the refugee crisis. Giving in to dictators and authoritarian leaders will not make the world a better place – not matter how many refugees are saved.