Germany was faced with only difficult choices when this current refugee crisis happened. Let no one fatuously imagine that an operative like Angela Merkel suddenly suffered from a surfeit of human kindness, particularly after the Greek saga. Every choice except the one that was made—-not an “invitation”, but the suspension of Dublin deportations—-would have led to the immediate collapse of possibly large portions of EU treaties and institutions in which Germany has the biggest stake. Even the suspension of Dublin deportations itself will have long-term consequences for the rest of the treaties, but less immediately so than all the other choices that they could have made. As soon as it came to be the case that millions of people would not be able to find a permanent home in the Middle East, the assumptions underlying European unity were going to face one of their biggest challenges yet—-one way or another.
What were the other choices? The institutions at the entry points to Europe (particularly Greece, which is situated, in geographic terms, particularly inconveniently) were not capable of handling the quantity of migrants that were arriving, even before Germany suspended Dublin deportations. Greece had no practical option other than to wave migrants through. Even European courts agreed that Greece was effectively no longer a safe third country, capable of processing the entirety of the influx. And yet, despite Greece’s inadequacies, people still kept arriving.
As the strongest, most economically successful, most institutionally capable country in Europe, it’s obvious why many refugees would prefer Germany and consider it their endpoint. Germany could have closed its own borders, and that would have been the end of the Schengen zone. Germany has been one of the greatest beneficiaries of the lifting of internal borders in Europe. It would not slit its own throat that way. Deportation back to the point of entry (Greece, mostly) would have been rejected by Greece and attempts to coerce Greece would have been taken (correctly) as kicking Greece in the teeth when it was down (not to mention, as I said, that European courts had rejected it anyway). The less said about the other transit countries, the better.
The other option, at a European level, would have been to prevent migrants from landing, even if it meant that they would die. This would surely have been illegal, and only truly depraved people would suggest this as a solution. I mention it merely to remind you that there are truly depraved people, as though you needed to be told. Likely, the torture camps currently used by Australia to deter boat arrivals are also not politically viable in Europe (they are also extremely expensive and require cooperative neighbouring countries, which European politicians have been trying to recruit with only limited success).
There were better European-level options in hindsight, such as formulating a common refugee policy and actively choosing suitable refugees at source (as Canada, favored with geographic distance, is doing), but a fair division of refugees would have required e.g. Poland to agree at the outset to take a large number of Sunni Muslim Arabs (for values of large that would probably have amounted to a few thousand), and this is evidently unacceptable. Consequently, a forethought solution was never contemplated.
So it was left to Germany to take all of them. Many of them probably aren’t refugees in the classical sense, but economic migrants, although in the modern world, this line is somewhat blurry. Even if you believed a clear distinction could be made, it doesn’t matter, because it turns out that deportation is prohibitively difficult in many cases (they often come from countries that refuse deportation and over which Germany has limited clout).
The effects on German society and politics have been complex. Angela Merkel’s popularity has gone down somewhat, and the far-right has gotten a boost. But in the main, despite standing criticisms of Merkel, it doesn’t appear that there will be many near-term consequences. Anyone who replaces Merkel will find themselves trapped by the same dilemma, with the only options being a more rapid deterioration of European institutions, morally depraved actions, or…making it work.
“Making it work”—-making, over the long term, the social and economic integration of a large number of Arab Muslim migrants most likely—-is, contrary to the claims of many, far from impossible. This migration is a little different from previous migrations, such as the Turkish guest workers, who were not really expected to remain and become a part of German society, and therefore little thought was given to their integration at the time of entry. So when they did stay, the construction of parallel societies was more likely than it might otherwise have been. In this migration, there has been a much swifter movement to ensure that as many new migrants as possible are taught about the society into which they have arrived as well as serious thought into long-term questions of preventing ghettoization, and so on. As the burden is very large, there is no guarantee of perfect outcomes, but it is possible that a better outcome can be achieved. (And it must be reiterated that the children of Turkish guest workers in Germany, while they have their on-going problems, have often succeeded in German society.)
The greatest danger is immediate distraction by particular incidents and short-term points of conflict. The sexual harassment events that occurred in Cologne that have reverberated around the world were likely perpetrated by only a small percentage of the new migrants, but nevertheless they raise natural questions about cultural and gender expectations. These are serious questions, but they risk getting derailed in lazy stereotypes about The Arab Man and his uncontrollable testosterone production. In reality, the questions are long-term: what measures to take in housing, education, and so on, not with the end goal of creating present-day Germans out of future Arabs, but instead with the goal of creating citizens who respect the rights of others. That requires the boring, practical, politically-correct discourses of inclusion and the much-maligned multiculturalism, not exciting and lurid analyses of inherent cultural character flaws.
In the end, it may be the case that Europe chooses otherwise—-either to end its partnerships in the face of exterior challenges, believing that individual nation-state solutions to problems that affect the entire continent are more sustainable and best for citizens, or to succumb to the forms of depravity regarding migrants to which I alluded.
(I haven’t included links in this post because most of my sources aren’t in English. I’m also starting to wonder whether treating blog posts that analyze widely available current affairs stories as academic articles is worth the effort…)