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Germany is finally treating the migrant crisis like a moral issue

German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Adam Berry/Getty Images
  • German Chancellor Angela Merkel gave a nearly two-hour press conference on Monday, in which she focused on Europe's migrant crisis and called for both Germany and the EU to do more for migrants.
  • Merkel announced that Germany would dedicate more money to helping migrants and that her government would streamline bureaucracy.
  • She also pressed other European Union nations to do more to share the burden of migration. "If Europe fails on the question of refugees, if this close link with universal civil rights is broken, then it won’t be the Europe we wished for," she warned.

Merkel's striking rhetoric on the migrant crisis

Merkel, usually stoic and reserved, was unusually forceful and even, by her standards, relatively emotional in her comments on migration.

"We stand before a huge national challenge that will be a central challenge not only for days or months but for a long period of time," she said of the migrant crisis, which she described a major national challenge in the same league as the 2008 financial crisis, the 1990 reunification of Germany, and the country's ongoing nuclear phase-out.

Merkel also condemned the xenophobic attacks against migrants in Germany, which have included a series of arson attacks against refugee centers. "What affects me is that we have such hate and such an atmosphere in this country. There can be no excuse for this," she said. Last week, dozens of police officers where injured in neo-Nazi riots in the small town of Heidenau.

Merkel spoke of "atrocities" in, for example, Austria, where 71 refugees were found suffocated to death in an abandoned truck last Tuesday. "And this is happening while we are living here in orderly circumstances," she said.

Germany expects its number of asylum seekers to quadruple to about 800,000 this year.

This is an important moment for Germany and for Merkel on migration

The force of Merkel's rhetoric on migration is new, and shows a shift in the German government's messaging around the migrant crisis. Although the chancellor has criticized right-wing extremism and violent attacks many times previously, the degree to which she described herself on Monday as personally affected is unusual. It is a stark contrast with her more stoic style, which recently included, for example her much-criticized encounter with a sobbing Palestinian girl.

This is also a policy change: Merkel announced plans for a new law to lower certain bureaucratic standards, such as construction regulations for refugee homes or guidelines for medical certificates, all designed to make it easier and faster for refugee families to resettle in Germany. "German thoroughness is great, but what we need now is German flexibility," she said.

Merkel also suggested that to make it easier for migrants to find work in Germany, her government might place an employee of the Federal Employment Agency in each reception center. And she suggested crash courses for teachers of German in order to expand the availability of language courses for asylum seekers.

To date, Germany's federal government has funded the construction of refugee camps, but municipalities and provinces led the project. On Monday, the chancellor announced that the federal government would expand its participation.

Merkel's remarks show how seriously she and Germany are taking the refugee issue. For the first time, she sent a clear message that no one in Germany can avoid responsibility on the migrant issue; that German politics and citizens, whom she urged to show open-mindedness and patience, have a responsibility to uphold.

Merkel shamed other EU countries (without explicitly calling them out)

At the same time, Merkel made clear that she sees some other European Union countries as failing to uphold their responsibilities. Though she did not name them specifically, it was obvious from her comments that she was calling out EU countries that have refused to take more migrants or have imposed strict border controls.

"There's no point in publicly calling each other names, but we must simply say that the current situation is not satisfactory," she said.

"Germany is a strong country, we will manage," Merkel went on — a striking contrast with other European leaders who have bowed to right-wing pressure to appear tough on migration.

She demanded that all EU members take their share: "If Europe fails on the question of refugees, then it won't be the Europe we wished for," she warned.

Her concerns are justified. Some European governments still resist proposals to fine on a common refugee plan; a number are also tightening their border controls policies and asylum policies. Hungary has erected a wire fence along its border with Serbia to try to keep out migrants, for example, and countries along the Mediterranean such as Greece don't even provide basic shelter for refugees.

The way Merkel discussed her proposed German reforms along with wider European failings suggests she is attempting to lead a sort of European counter-movement to the prevailing trend of anti-migration politics. And Germany has taken in more asylum seekers than any other EU country.

"Europe as a whole must move, and its states must share the responsibility for refugees seeking asylum," Merkel said. "There's no point in publicly calling each other names, but we must simply say that the current situation is not satisfactory."

Merkel's government will have an opportunity to raise her concerns directly with other European leaders soon: European Union interior and justice ministers will hold an emergency meeting on September 14 to discuss the migrant crisis. Previous such meetings have been fruitless. Merkel seems to hope this time fellow EU states will have an example to follow.