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How Germany became Europe's moral leader on the refugee crisis

Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Germany has decided to take leadership of Europe's refugee crisis. This is no longer just a general observation; meanwhile, Chancellor Angela Merkel says quite openly that without clear guidance, Europe will probably fail to find a way through this historic crisis.

"If we show courage and lead the way, a common European approach is more likely," she said on Wednesday in a speech to the German parliament. Germany's "strength and power" in cooperation with its partners, she said, were the key to solving the crisis.

The country has taken in many more asylum seekers than any other EU member. "We have a responsibility, and we perceive it," Merkel said, not without a touch of pride.

What we are experiencing right now is nothing less than a new, more confident self-conception of Germany. Last week, Merkel pressed other nations in the European Union to do more to share the burden of migration. Before that, Germany had lowered the hurdles for incoming Syrian refugees.

Germany, it seems, wants to be a sort of moral example for other, less committed EU states on this crisis. Whether the rest of the European Union is willing to follow may be decided next week, when the EU leaders meet for a summit on refugee policy. Germany is pressing to impose refugee quotas so that all countries will share the burden, but this idea is unpopular among EU states that would rather resist any requirements.

Earlier this week I spoke with migration expert Yves Pascouau from the European Policy Centre, a think tank based in Brussels, about Germany's new leadership in the European refugee crisis. What follows is a transcript of our conversation, lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Annett Meiritz: Why is Germany's stance on the migrant interesting?

Yves Pascouau: German Chancellor Angela Merkel has clearly taken European leadership with respect to the migrant issue. I think she’s been able to do so because German public opinion is pretty much in favor of helping asylum seekers, especially those coming from a country with a civil war like Syria.

Compared with other countries in the European Union, public opinion in Germany is rather supportive toward refugees. There’s an overall situation in Germany that led to a relatively broad political and social consensus about refugees entering Germany.

AM: How would you describe that overall situation?

YP: On the one hand, the German economy is functioning well. Germany also knows it’s going to have an extremely big problem with birth rates declining; immigration is therefore intended to help in principle.

And finally, extreme right parties in Germany aren’t as strong as in other European countries. Even if there are extreme reactions and arson attacks by nationalists and neo-Nazis, those are not as political as in other EU states — for instance in France, where the extreme right is very strong on the political level.

Angela Merkel attending an EU summit in Brussels, in July 2014.

AM: Merkel had been reluctant for some time on refugees, but then suddenly took this big step forward. Did you see that coming?

YP: This move really surprised me. A few weeks ago, the Germans made clear that they want to stick to the Dublin agreement — an EU rule that allowed member states to deport refugees to the EU state where they'd first arrived — and don’t want to move away from that principle. But suddenly the Dublin system has, to a certain extent, imploded, because of a decision the German government made a couple of weeks ago: The country allowed Syrian refugees, who normally would be deported back to wherever they first entered the EU, to stay and apply for asylum.

To say that we are not going to insist on the current rules with respect to Syrian refugees was clearly a way to blow away the Dublin mechanism. Now I think, this mechanism has been fundamentally weakened.

AM: Which other reasons do you see for such a turnaround?

YP: The fact that Angela Merkel moved so quickly and so suddenly had, to a certain extent, something to do with her coalition partner, the Social Democrats (SPD). There were first two SPD ministers, Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who had presented a 10-point plan with respect to the migrant crisis.

My reading is that Angela Merkel has seen the Social Democrats were about to gain power and sympathy for this. That was then the moment where she decided to move. As I said, the general context in Germany was supportive to make that move. But the way it has been implemented, I would say, domestic political motives were speeding up things.

Media coverage about Germany's role in the refugee crisis: "Something we are not used to."

Screenshots by the author / Twitter

AM: Something has changed in the general perception of Germany; the country has been praised for its stance on the migrant crisis by the international press lately. How do you explain that?

YP: Ten years ago, on an economic level, Germany was called the "sick man of Europe." Now it’s the most powerful economy in the EU and one of the top economies in the world. This has had a strong influence on how the world expects Germany to deal with the migrant crisis.

However, a lot of people seem to forget that Germany already had been able to take on a high number of refugees during the Balkan Wars in the 1990s.

Still, the situation is different these days. Now we have a German chancellor strongly speaking extremely tough toward opponents in Germany and Europe, in such a big and open manner. This is perhaps something we are not used to.

AM: I’m curious about the strategic motives behind this development. Is it about more than moral leadership? Could it be a deeper intention to fix the European Union, as Germany tried to do in the financial crisis with Greece?

YP: What we had with the euro crisis was to a certain extent a technical crisis. Now we are facing a humanitarian crisis. The magnitude is extremely high; such a phenomenon we haven’t had for half a century. This is the biggest refugee crisis since World War II. And according to the figures, in the last couple of weeks it’s become clear that the migrant movement will even increase. So it was only a matter of time before an EU leader had to go ahead and step forward.

In Germany, there are 800,000 asylum seekers expected in 2015, more than in any other European country. I think the sheer numbers of refugees also played a significant role in Germany deciding to move ahead.

European migrant crisis by numbers: Some EU members show more commitment, others show less.

AM: Why are some EU countries taking more responsibility, while some take almost none?

YP: This is the million-dollar question; there’s no simple answer. That Sweden and Germany take the most refugees is part of the way they see themselves as immigration countries. Same applies for the UK or France — both have a long history of being immigration countries. But the current political and social climate makes it difficult for their governments to move ahead like Germany does.

Eastern European member states like Hungary or Slovakia don’t share such an immigration history; they are mainly countries of emigration. Those countries have lived under communism for decades. Their societies don’t see themselves as multicultural. They aren’t familiar with the idea of suddenly being asked to receive a pretty high number of asylum seekers.

By the time those countries joined the EU, they were far from considering that one day they might be faced with a huge migrant flow. And now they are forced, to a certain extend, to contribute to a common European future.

AM: Is there even such thing as forcing individual EU members to accept more refugees?

YP: How to distribute migrants fairly is one of the biggest challenges the European Union is going to deal with for a long time. The picture of this poor little boy on the beach has clearly changed the overall mood. Now the public is more aware of the fact that there are actually people dying: men, women, families, children. From my point of view, this has clearly played as a major game changer. Even UK Prime Minister David Cameron has decided to welcome 20,000 additional migrants over the next five years; France and Spain have also agreed to take in more refugees.

Things are changing extremely rapidly on the EU level, and this may well have a big impact on other countries like Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary. If some EU members are completely isolated in terms of their asylum policies, the pressure on them increases immensely.

We’ll see after September 14, when the EU leaders meet again, where the European Union stands, whether there will be a common solution or whether the whole thing is going to lead to a dead end.

AM: How optimistic are you that the EU will solve that crisis?

YP: A few of days ago, I was really pessimistic. Now, with the political landscape changing rapidly, I’m far more optimistic.