Angela Merkel’s Test of Faith

Europe is tottering — if by “Europe” we mean not only a place on a map but a community of value. Italian voters have rejected a constitutional referendum upon which forward-looking Prime Minister Matteo Renzi had staked his reputation and his job. France’s Socialist president, François Hollande, has fallen so low in the polls that he has chosen not to run for a second term. The good news is that Austrian voters just elected a Green Party member as president over Norbert Hofer, the leader of a far-right, anti-immigrant party — though both Hofer and his party were marginal only a few years ago.

Among the major nations, Germany stands alone as the bulwark of the liberal order established after World War II in order to prevent German-style fascism from destroying Europe’s peace once again. That is a historical irony of which the Germans themselves are acutely aware. In announcing that she would seek a fourth term, Chancellor Angela Merkel insisted that it was “absurd” to expect one person to preserve European values — but that, indeed, is the increasingly desperate hope of many Germans and of people across the West.

Merkel herself bears some responsibility for the right-wing tide, for it was she who most openly welcomed the refugees fleeing Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere in the summer of 2015. Europe’s acute case of nationalism has many causes, but anger toward refugees may be first among them. The effort to absorb and integrate those refugees, above all in Germany, which accepted almost 1 million of them last year alone, poses the most severe test of Europe’s commitment to the treaties, moral principles, and rules that make the continent something more than simply a geographical accident. That is why I plan to spend much of the next year studying whether this experiment is likely to succeed or fail.

After spending several days in Dresden last month, what became clear to me is that Germany is trying very hard to get rid of many of the refugees to whom it opened its arms. After a change in policy by the Interior Ministry last spring, Syrians now receive only one year of asylum, which must be renewed, rather than the three years they routinely got before. During the same period, the Bundestag, Germany’s parliament, passed a law putting an end to “family reunification” for those who only receive these one-year grants. And Germany has increased the pace of deportations for those who do not receive any form of protection. On Tuesday, Dec. 6, Merkel even went so far as to call for a ban on burkas in schools and other state buildings — a move that was widely cheered by worried members of her own party, but clearly a response to a rising tide of anti-immigrant sentiment. In short, Germany is engaging in a kind of triage, limiting the number of asylum-seekers to whom it offers shelter in order to discourage potential new migrants, more effectively integrate those who remain, and drain some of the rage fueling the far-right.

I chose Dresden because it lies in the former East Germany and thus is less wealthy and less cosmopolitan than cities like Munich or Frankfurt or, of course, Berlin. Dresden is also the capital of Saxony, which is governed by a branch of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) that has drifted further and further to the right. The city is also the birthplace of Pegida, the vehement and at times violent anti-immigrant movement that has spread across Germany and parts of Europe.

There have been more than 250 recorded incidents of violence against refugees in Dresden alone this year; many involve attacks on their housing. Ali Moradi, the managing director of the Refugee Council of Saxony, says in years past the state government simply turned a blind eye to racist and far-right activism, but now it sees the Nazis — a word that Germans apply broadly to violent far-right groups — as potential allies in its own campaign to persuade refugees that they are not welcome. The government has largely stood aside, Moradi says, as violent youths have terrorized refugees, especially in the state’s small towns and villages. At times, federal prosecutors have had to step in when local authorities failed to act in the face of attacks on immigrants.

The combination of national legal changes, local restrictions, and growing public intolerance has convinced some of the refugees I met that they made a terrible mistake seeking asylum in Germany. Unlike Syrians, Iraqis do not enjoy automatic refugee status, even at the one-year level. I met with a group of Iraqis who have spent months in a converted Days Inn at the far edge of town waiting to hear whether or not they could stay in Germany. Owing to their uncertain status, they are not allowed to do any work, save the most menial, nor — with one or two exceptions — even take classes in German. They were bored out of their minds, angry, and frustrated. When I asked one of them, Hussein Hamzi Karim, what he does all day, he said, “I ride my bike until I get tired, and then I come back here and sleep.” Karim is a former policeman who says that he fled Baghdad in November 2015, after he was threatened by Sunni extremists. “If another week goes by,” he told me, “I’ll chain myself under a train so the whole world can see the reality of this German dream.”

In October, the EU reached an agreement with Afghanistan to send migrants who had been denied asylum back to cities deemed sufficiently safe, including Kabul and Mazar-e-Sharif — places many of the migrants have never even seen. Germany continues to offer asylum to many Afghans, especially unaccompanied minors; those who cannot demonstrate a legitimate fear of persecution, however, increasingly face the prospect of forcible return. Saxony’s provincial government has carried out 19 percent of Germany’s deportations, though it has only 5 percent of the refugees. In some cases, according to officials with the Refugee Council of Saxony, the government has separated families despite medical testimony that those left behind are at risk of committing suicide.

Yet Dresden is still Germany, a country that has pledged itself to “European values” and is prepared to put its money where its heart is. Those refugees who are granted asylum receive as much as $750 a month for living expenses, housing, and health insurance. Those funds are chiefly federal, but Saxony has also begun, albeit grudgingly, to pay for refugee care. Sebastian Vogel, a Social Democrat who serves in Saxony’s new post of minister for equality and integration, told me that his annual budget had gone from $180,000 to $11 million to $15 million — and he expects it to continue rising. Nevertheless, he says, the need far outstrips the available funds. “We no longer have to struggle to convince the CDU of the need for programs,” he said. “We have to struggle to convince them to pay the money for the programs.”

Even as officials reduce both the number of migrants to whom they grant asylum and the benefits they extend, Germany is going to great lengths to successfully absorb those who will remain. An integration law passed in July sought, among other things, to open up the labor market for refugees, ending the practice of exhausting the pool of German and EU job-seekers before making positions available to new arrivals. One Syrian I met, Tarek al-Salloum, who had received a diploma in veterinary science from Hama University before fleeing the country to avoid military service, had reached Dresden in February 2015, received refugee status three months later, and began studying German. Salloum told me that he had been offered an internship as a vet but decided instead to continue improving his German in the hopes of ultimately landing a better job.

Like so many refugees, Salloum had a hellish passage from Turkey across Europe, but he could not think of a single bad experience he’d had since reaching Germany. If anything, he worried that his fellow immigrants were setting a poor example. “The Pegida guys pay taxes,” he said, “and they can’t accept that there are people getting benefits without doing any work. I don’t agree with them, but I understand them. There are people who have been here for two years and have never gone to German class or looked for work. I feel like they’re disappointing the expectations of the German people and Angela Merkel that they would become part of German society.” Salloum is especially vexed, he said, at “the Tunisian guys who hang out in the train station and whistle at girls.”

The Tunisians will probably be deported, at least once the authorities catch up with them. But how many model immigrants like Salloum are there among Dresden’s roughly 5,500 refugees? Despite the oft-repeated view that Syria’s well-educated middle class decamped en masse for Europe, no more than half of adult refugees in Dresden have graduated from high school. The liberalized labor rules for refugees won’t matter if the new arrivals don’t qualify for the available positions. Dresden doesn’t need more cooks, bakers, or construction workers. The country does need labor for its auto plants and machine shops, but highly automated factories require workers with advanced training. I heard in Dresden what I often heard last year in Sweden: “We can always use more elder-care nurses. But how many?”

I met another Syrian whom I’ll call Khaled. (He didn’t want me to use his name not because he feared for his family’s safety but because he was too resentful of foreign journalists seeking, as he saw it, to exploit Syrian misery.) Khaled had gone to university in Aleppo for two years, studied history and philosophy, and wrote poetry. But he was 50 years old, and he admitted that he and his wife were making very slow progress in their German-language class. When I asked Khaled if he was looking for work, he laughed ruefully and said, “It’s very comfortable here.” The state authorities had given him a comfortable, if spare, apartment in a Soviet-era housing block, as well as a monthly stipend. Khaled has four children, aged 10 to 19. He said they’re doing well in school. The struggle of integration hinges on their success or failure, more than on Khaled’s. That is what I plan to follow.

The dawn of a new and very frightening political era here in the United States has turned the refugee crisis into yesterday’s story. But the truth is that Europe faces a threat to its liberal values and its political order that is more immediate, and probably graver, than the one represented by the election of Donald Trump as president and certainly by the “immigration crisis” in America he campaigned on. And for all of Trump’s bombastic attacks on President Barack Obama’s refugee policy, the United States, which has taken all of 12,000 Syrian refugees, faces problems of integration that are trivial compared with most European countries, leave aside Germany.

It is easy enough for us, at a distance, to conclude that a Europe sending refugees back to Afghanistan and Iraq has lost its moral compass. But the choices faced by Angela Merkel, who has expended a good deal of her political capital in order to honor the obligation to admit refugees, are simply agonizing. If she stops making impossible distinctions between, say, the merits of Syrian and Iraqi refugees, and thereby strengthens the hand of Pegida and the far-right Alternative for Germany political party, she will fail her own citizens and soon the refugees themselves. Triage demands painful, even ugly, choices. But she has calculated that this price must be paid in order to preserve the liberal order that has sustained the West for the last seven decades. We should hope that she is right.

Update, Dec. 6: This article has been updated to take account of Angela Merkel’s call for a burka ban in her CDU party meeting speech.

This article was originally published in Foreign Policy on December 5, 2016

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Dec 12, 2016
James Traub
Europe, Middle East, Syria