Refugee Issue It Wasn't a Good Year

Last summer saw an influx of refugees coming to Germany. While many celebrated this step, a Die Zeit columnist says you don't have to be a reactionary to see things differently. He questions the decision by Chancellor Angela Merkel to welcome the asylum seekers.
The influx of refugees meant some were housed in hangars such as in Berlin's Tempelhof airport.


Recently a German columnist, Bernd Ulrich,  called the past 12 months “A Year Like No Other.”

Yes, that's what it was – but not a good year, neither for Germany nor for Angela Merkel.

In September 2015, the chancellor decided to open Germany's borders to refugees fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East and North Africa.

Her decision, in the face of necessity if not inclination, would not have been needed, if the right decision – or any decision – had been made beforehand.

Everyone knew that the Dublin Protocol convenient as it is for us, would impose an unacceptable burden on Mediterranean countries in an emergency.

The agreement requires refugees to apply for asylum in the first E.U. countries in which they arrive. Officials knew months, even years beforehand that hundreds of thousands were waiting to embark for the promised land. It was clear that this would lead to a miserable situation in refugee camps, and that it would leave people with scarcely any choice other than to head for the land of plenty.

Her decision, in the face of necessity if not inclination, would not have been needed, if the right decision – or any decision – had been made beforehand.

But the German government didn't make sure the United Nations' budget for providing for displaced persons was raised instead of being reduced.

And the people who came were not only asylum seekers, whose acceptance is an obligation, but also adventurers and people fleeing poverty in such numbers that not all have been registered even today.

We still hear the echoes of Chancellor Merkel's famous statement “We can do it!”

Back then that sentence didn't imply that her opening of the borders was an “exception.” It sounded as if the chancellor was telling us, “Have no fear; everything will turn out fine!”

Then a photograph of her went viral round the world. The selfie, taken in September 2015 at a Berlin refugee center, showed her smiling cheek-to-cheek with a refugee. Anyone who still doubted the persecuted and dispossessed were welcome in Germany was a hopeless case.

Then there were all the economic experts saying Germany was a desperately over-aged country and the influx of refugees was a good thing. The question about what industries in the midst of digitalization were going to do with untrained men was initially voiced only softly.

Instead the welcome culture brought the notion that the country could benefit only by freeing itself from its narrow-mindedness and becoming as diverse and cosmopolitan as possible.

The observation that a majority of the immigrants come from a pre-modern, anti-secular culture so different from our own seemed to many people to be so fallacious partly because the Pegida demonstrators expressed the fear of Islamization in such a heavy-handed manner.

Then there's the debate about admitting Turkey to the European Union. The former constitutional judge Ernst-Wolfgang Böckenförde observed at the end of 2004 that a common “we-feeling” must be more strongly developed in democratic societies than in authoritarian or technocratic ones: “What this means is that in both mental and emotional terms, that which affects others also impacts upon me, cannot be separated from my own existence. This is the basis – as an expression of solidarity – for recognizing joint responsibility, taking on commitments, engaging in reciprocal effort.”

He added: “To the degree to which a community is based on a process of democratic legitimization, decisions must be positively accepted by its members as if they themselves had made them. Thus there is a wide-ranging need for shared outlooks and goals.”

It's easy to see that such commonalities require considerable time to develop. How long that can take could be seen at the demonstrations in Cologne this July, when thousands of Germans of Turkish origin acclaimed a distant dictator and more than a few of them called for the introduction of the death penalty in Turkey. When Recep Tayyip Erdoğan continues to wage a bombing war against what he sees as the hated Kurds, they will flee to Germany. That won't please all the Turks living here.

As for the process of democratic legitimization, I can't recall that the German parliament discussed and approved the momentous issue that was involved with opening the borders. The party leaders negotiated in private an action of such far-reaching consequences.

Even the media with their monitoring role, including the Bild newspaper and public broadcasters, adopted at least at the beginning the humanitarianism proclaimed by Ms. Merkel and hurried to claim the moral high ground. The media considered it more important to educate the people than to criticize the government. For a long time, the enemy seemed to the media to be “on the right,” with this specification of political location often being augmented with the term “populist.” For a majority of commentators, it was in any case clear for a time that people speaking about the “Christian West” must be from the backwoods or even reactionary.

Those who warn about Islamization and don't want to be called Islamophobic or even racist would do well to be named Michel Houellebecq who, in his novel “Submission,” presents the satirical horror scenario of a Christian West that no longer believes in itself.

Or they could be named Alain Finkielkraut. In a conversation with Die Zeit, the French intellectual said Germans live in an imaginary world of eternal peace: “As the French philosopher Julien Freund, who was a member of the French Resistance, said: ‘We don't define our enemy. It's our enemy who defines us.'” And according to Mr. Finkielkraut, this enemy is radical Islam in one's own country.

The man loves exaggeration, and it's better not to imitate him in that regard. But a distinction should be made between morality and politics. What’s at stake in the refugee issue isn’t morality primarily, but the implementation of a policy that makes it possible to do what is right. What’s right depends, on the one hand, on one's own interests, and on the other the moral principles for which one stands – and of course on the possibilities of the moment.

Going back to the original column by Mr. Ulrich, he writes that Germany is in no way enduringly isolated, an assertion which astonishes me deeply. Ms. Merkel’s efforts to distribute refugees among other countries has failed, and the chancellor's policy isn’t supported by almost all European governments. Her recent visits to Eastern Europe couldn't change that. It seems strange to me that Germans are deemed to be the only Europeans who are smart and humane.


This article originally appeared in Die Zeit. To contact the author: [email protected]