By Shastri Ramachandaran*
A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of right-wing nationalism that is anti-immigrant and, in many pockets, feeding racism and xenophobia. Germany, which stood tall and firm against this gathering illiberal tide by throwing open its doors in 2015-16 to over a million refugees – mainly from the war in Syria – is today facing a crisis over Chancellor Angela Merkel’s policy on refugees.
With the U.S. turning its back on globalization and the global order facing an erosion of liberal and humanitarian values, Germany rose as a new pole of power in the West. It is Germany that has been calling the shots on behalf of the advanced industrial nations, and not only at the recent G7 summit, which saw Chancellor Merkel taking a tough line against President Donald Trump.
Be it a deal to rescue Greece from its financial crisis, setting the terms for talks over Ukraine, negotiating with Russia, the nuclear pact with Iran or the refugee crisis in the wake of the Syrian conflict, western efforts were led, not by the US, but by Germany.
As the world’s largest democracy, India cannot but be affected by global tides when liberal rights and freedoms are endangered by the forces of narrow nationalism, rising from below and undemocratic leaders like Trump, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping at the top looking the other way.
Besides strong economic ties, India has in common with Europe political, social, cultural and educational values and practices. A setback to democracy and rule of law in Europe would also affect India and India’s relations, including economic, with the European Union (EU).
Recent developments over refugee issues in her country, which have shaken Merkel, could weaken Germany and its leadership of Europe; and, a weak European leadership bodes ill for managing the political and social threat posed by the anti-immigrant and racist parties, which are gaining electorally.
On July 2, to save the government, Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) struck a deal with its coalition partner, the Christian Social Union (CSU). In a breathtaking reversal of her own open-border policy for refugees, she agreed to keep out “secondary migrants”, build border camps for asylum seekers and tighten the border with Austria, through which many refugees enter Germany.
Secondary migrants are those who enter Europe in another country, apply for asylum there and then head to Germany because refugees get more financial support and are better looked after. In submitting to the CSU, Merkel has turned her back on the liberal European order she espoused during her three terms in office.
Even at the start of her fourth term, and 13th year in office, in March, Merkel stood firm in opposing nationalism and anti-immigrant sentiments, which were on the upswing in Germany as also elsewhere in Europe. These made government formation a challenge because the CDU and CSU, which together won 33 per cent of the votes, had to keep on board the left-leaning Social Democratic Party (SPD) with a 20 per cent vote share.
More threatening to these establishment parties was the far right, anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) taking 12.6 per cent of the votes to emerge as the largest party outside the ruling coalition. The AfD stole a march over the Free Democratic Party (FDP), the Left and the Greens at the expense of the CDU and SPD.
The AfD’s dramatic rise poses a serious challenge to the liberal European order and its multilateralism. The AfD’s emergence in Germany’s mainstream means nationalism is rearing its ugly head. Given the dark chapter of Nazism in German history and later, spasmodic appearances of neo-Nazi groups, nationalism of any sort stirs painful memories in Germany.
Why then did Merkel back down on the refugee issue when her CSU Interior Minister Horst Seehofer threatened to quit the coalition? The reason is the upcoming election in Bavaria, on the Austrian border. The AfD has been gaining ground in the CSU stronghold of Bavaria. It would be disastrous for the CSU – and Merkel’s CDU-led coalition – to be defeated at the polls by the AfD. Hence, the CDU buckled under the CSU’s pressure to tighten the border against immigrants.
Ground realities, however, fly in the face of CSU claims that raising the bar against refugees would blunt the AfD campaign against refugees. One, the number of asylum seekers has come down to 78,000 in the first half of this year from nearly 750,000 at the height of the refugee crisis in 2016.
Two, only 27 per cent of the illegal crossings are on the Austria-Germany border while 73 per cent take place on the borders of other German states. Three, only 13 per cent of refugees have been settled in Bavaria. Four, large numbers of asylum seekers are actually flying into Germany and not crawling across the Austrian border as the AfD would have its supporters believe.
Five, only 24 per cent of the refugees are from war-torn Syria and they can be sent back at some point. Therefore, as an informed German diplomat pointed out, there is no basis to believe that flogging the refugee issue would fetch more votes for the AfD.
Unfortunately, when the elections are over, the political battle over the refugee issue – which the German intelligentsia sees as a new social reality that Europe must come to terms with – may not fade away. To the contrary, Germany may find that anti-immigrant populism has taken deeper root like in Italy, Hungary, Austria, Poland, the Czech republic and Scandinavia.
Would that presage the revival of Fortress Europe, more tightening of borders by Germany, new barriers across Europe and an end to Merkel’s legacy of open borders in a liberal order where humanitarian law is prized? Germany should pull back before such fears catch on.
*The author, an independent political and foreign affairs commentator based in New Delhi, has studied, lectured and travelled in Germany over several years. Views are personal. This article first appeared in DNA India, and is being reproduced by arrangement with the author.