“The past is another country. They do things differently there”.
L.P. Hartley, “The Go Between”
Alphen, Netherlands. 14 September. They call her ‘Mama Merkel’. The hundreds of thousands of migrants now in Germany and struggling across Europe see German Chancellor Angela Merkel as their saviour. Without consulting the German people or her EU counterparts she threw open German borders, unilaterally suspended the Dublin Convention, and effectively destroyed the Schengen system of free movement within the EU. Her actions whilst clearly motivated by the best of intentions remind me of the last days in power of another formidable female leader Margaret ‘Maggie’ Thatcher. Thatcher fell because she sought to impose an unfair tax on Britain’s poor – the infamous poll tax. She was advised not to by her colleagues but such was her sense of political superiority after eleven years of untrammelled and unquestioned power she went ahead anyway. Worried about her growing megalomaniac tendencies it was her colleagues in the Conservative Party who in 1990 eventually brought her down. Has Mama Merkel met her Maggie moment?
The answer is as yet unclear. Yesterday, Germany for the second time in a month acted unilaterally to “temporarily” reintroduce border controls and in so doing suspend one of the EU’s four fundamental freedoms – free movement. It is hardly surprising given that last week German Interior Minister Thomas de la Maizière warned that up to one million people could claim asylum in Germany in 2015. Last week Merkel herself warned that the influx would change Germany for ever, and that Germans could expect 500,000 immigrants each year for years to come.
Now, I have long defended modern Germany which I admire from those who try to equate the actions of this powerful model democracy with its Nazi past. However, Berlin’s irresponsibility these past weeks clearly smacks of a German Chancellor allowing Germany’s past to pollute policy. In her efforts to assuage that past by offering open door asylum she has massively increased the so-called ‘pull factors’ for migrants and refugees from the Middle East, Africa and beyond and come dangerously close at times to acting as a recruiting agent for people traffickers.
Chancellor Merkel has no need to assuage Germany’s Nazi past or the hard-line intolerance of the Communist East Germany in which she grew up by destabilising contemporary Germany and by extension much of neighbouring Europe. Yes, her instinct to help is laudable and reflects a quintessential decency at her core that shines through. However, ‘decency’ is not policy and at the very least she should have consulted the German people about their willingness to accept such imposed change. Whatever commentators might say about Germany’s failing demographics sudden, imposed hyper-immigration (which is what we are witnessing) has not worked well in Europe and led to profound tensions over identity, culture and worse.
The impression given is one of lofty detachment, Indeed, Merkel’s high-handedness can at best be described as ‘let them eat cake’ politics. Telling fellow Germans and Europeans to get used to such inflows without admitting that the crisis is as much a consequence of elite failure to predict and prepare as the collapse of the Levant smacks of the worst kind of political hubris. And, it appears all too typical of a detached, limousine-riding, champagne-quaffing, palace-residing, security ring-fenced European elite all too ready to lecture the poorest in society who must cope with such an influx about the human rights of others.
Some sense of realism must also be established. In an effort to mask a profound mistake Chancellor Merkel implies that everyone now making their way to and across Europe are the saintly victims of conflict. Many clearly are and are deserving of our help and, indeed, a Europe-wide humanitarian response. However, within the exodus there will be opportunists, criminals and even terrorists which is why due process must be re-applied rigorously if the first duty of any leader is be upheld and seen to be so; to protect her own people.
Control and some sense of strategy and order must be established and quickly. Even though it is unfashionable these days for continental Europe’s elite to admit David Cameron and the British are right about this crisis the most important first response is to help displaced Syrians in the camps in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. Thereafter, the flow to Europe must be controlled by diplomatic engagement with Turkey, the establishment of reception centres in Greece, Italy, Spain and elsewhere, the quick and proper assessment of asylum claimants, with those who fail to qualify for asylum returned to their country of origin. If migrants refuse to disclose their identities, language and dialect experts must assist with the identification of their likely origins. Countries that refuse to take migrants back must face EU and national aid sanctions/incentives. Such a rigorous approach would be massively strengthened by evidence of a strategy to go after the major criminal gangs who are driving this exodus and profiting from it. Germany must use its undoubted power and influence to champion such a system to be run jointly by all EU member-states. Only thereafter will Chancellor Merkel begin to regain the trust of the people who are going to have to live with the massive change she suggests is coming. Hopefully, today’s ‘crisis’ meeting of national interior ministers will adopt such measures but do not hold your breath!
There is one other aspect of this crisis which suggests it may be time for Chancellor Merkel to step down from power. Twice in the past fortnight she has unilaterally-suspended cornerstone EU rules. However, she has repeatedly told David Cameron that the very modest reforms to the EU (more modest by the day) will be impossible. She not only gives the impression that it is she who decides the fate and status of millions of Europeans who did not and cannot vote for her, she also gives the impression that in the EU whilst it is no rules for Germany, it is too many rules for the rest of us. Worse, at a dinner in Downing Street a couple of years ago she told David Cameron that if a Brexit became likely she would move to isolate Britain. Britain has done a pretty good job isolating itself but she is clearly far more Machiavellian than the impression she likes to give.
Margaret Thatcher suffered from a dangerous trinity of power; a dominant domestic political position, an innate, unyielding Machiavellianism, and a long period in office during which those willing to stand up to her were replaced by ‘yes men’. From a distance it looks as if Angela Merkel is showing signs of suffering from the same dangerous trinity. For Germany’s sake, for Europe’s sake and indeed for own sake it is perhaps time for this quintessentially decent woman to go.
The past is indeed a different country and nowhere more so than Germany. However, if Chancellor Merkel does not restore some element of control to the current mass influx then the future Germany will also be a very different country and they will have to do things very differently there. The German people should have a say but Germany too must tread warily.