Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel arrives at a European Union leaders summit over migration in Brussels, Belgium, March 17, 2016.
Francois Lenoir / Reuters

Almost a year after Europe’s refugee crisis began, the pressure is still on to find a solution. On March 18, Turkey and the European Union, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the forefront, agreed on a deal: for every illegal Syrian refugee returned to Turkey from Greece, one legal Syrian refugee already in Turkey would be resettled in the EU. Humanitarian agencies such as Médecins Sans Frontières and Save the Children quickly condemned the plan, criticizing it as an unethical and illegal attempt to prevent refugees from migrating to western Europe. Although the deal has raised hopes that the EU might have finally found a way to reduce the flow of migrants, it has also dented its reputation as an inclusive defender of human rights.

In Germany, the deal has divided public opinion. Politicians on the left argue that it has damaged Merkel’s position as the EU’s guiding moral compass on migration; politicians on the right argue that it’s too little, too late. But for now, at least, disappointment at the deal doesn’t seem to have affected the chancellor’s political future. Despite her party’s poor showing in recent state elections, she looks set to extend her decadelong rule as Germany’s leader.

A protest against the EU-Turkey migrant deal in Malaga, southern Spain, March 2016. The banner reads, "Welcome refugees. No to the European Union-Turkey deal".
A protest against the EU-Turkey migrant deal in Malaga, southern Spain, March 2016. The banner reads, "Welcome refugees. No to the European Union-Turkey deal".
Jon Nazca / Reuters
Outside of Germany, the deal has been met with similar anger. Merkel is widely regarded as the only EU leader to have taken a proactive approach toward solving the refugee crisis, but her European counterparts claim that she cut the deal with Turkey without consulting them, leaving them scrambling to assess the deal’s legality.

This isn’t the first time in Merkel’s tenure that tensions between Germany and the rest of the continent have been high. Yet the extent of the discord created by the refugee crisis has left the EU far from living up to its name. Largely because of weak nerves on the part of her allies, who have abdicated leadership on the issue, Merkel has once again been forced to make difficult, inevitably unpopular decisions. To get out of this political morass, Merkel will have to craft an EU-wide asylum framework for immigration that wins broad support.

RELUCTANT NO MORE

Merkel has led the center-right Christian Democratic Union for the past 16 years. In recent elections in Baden-Württemberg, however, the CDU lost 12 percent of its vote share, and in Rhineland-Palatinate and Saxony-Anhalt, it lost three percent, largely because of high turnout among former nonvoters, who overwhelmingly supported the anti-refugee and euroskeptic Alternative for Germany party.

Syrian refugees arrive at the camp for refugees and migrants in Friedland, Germany, April 2016.
Syrian refugees arrive at the camp for refugees and migrants in Friedland, Germany, April 2016.
Kai Pfaffenbach / Reuters

Some pundits see this as an inauspicious sign, but Merkel, as The Guardian wrote after the elections, “lives to fight another day.” In Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate, the CDU lost to the center-left Green Party and Social Democratic Party, whose candidates campaigned on platforms explicitly backing Merkel’s stance on refugees. In other words, despite a bad showing at the ballot box, the CDU remains powerful, and the overall election outcomes reveal that support for Merkel’s refugee policy has yet to weaken.

A more pressing dividing line, then, lies between Germany and the other EU member states. Given Germany’s muted international role just a few years ago—its perceived lack of leadership in European foreign affairs used to cause frustration abroad—the simmering tensions over its slow emergence as a major foreign policy player might, at first, appear odd. Despite Germany’s political size, stability, and wealth, German politicians have been extraordinarily hesitant to show international leadership since the end of World War II. This “culture of restraint” inspired Germany’s nicknames of the “sick man” and “reluctant hegemon” of Europe.

But geopolitical interests have nudged Germany into the limelight. After Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine, the West turned to Germany to attempt to defuse the crisis. Rather than leading from behind, Merkel declared that Russian aggression violated Europe’s peaceful order, and she and her allies imposed severe economic sanctions that dealt a sizeable blow to Russia’s already fragile economy.

Merkel has once again been forced to make difficult, inevitably unpopular decisions.

Of course, economic might shouldn’t be conflated with military muscle. Germany’s political culture and uneasy relationship with true hard power will, at least for the time being, prevent it from using highly aggressive foreign policy tools. Even so, within the last few years, Germany’s role on the international stage has begun to expand. Its actions in the refugee crisis are the latest sign of this increasing assertiveness.

A LEADER WITHOUT FOLLOWERS?

But just because Germany has become increasingly comfortable with its leadership role doesn’t mean that the rest of the EU has become comfortable taking a backseat to Merkel. European leaders’ consternation at Merkel’s EU–Turkey deal echoes EU citizens’ frustration with Merkel’s austerity plans, grumbling about Germany’s insistence on expanding the Russian Nord Stream 2 pipeline, and protests against the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), a U.S.-EU trade deal that Merkel backs. EU objections didn’t prevent sweeping austerity policies, however, nor have they halted the drive to build Nord Stream 2 and pass TTIP. As Germany grows in confidence, Merkel has the economic power, political capital, and, most important, the sheer will needed to push unpopular measures through the convoluted EU system.

Given that anti-refugee policies are now the new European norm, Merkel’s deal with Turkey makes more sense.

Given the hostile attitude of most other EU nations toward asylum seekers, Merkel will need every bit of economic, political, and personal forcefulness she can muster to have a chance of maintaining a Europe that is relatively welcoming to refugees. This is more necessary than ever because of the speed with which some countries are instituting restrictive immigration policies.

For instance, since January, Denmark has passed measures allowing Danish immigration officials to take any non-sentimental valuables that refugees have with them in order to pay for their accommodation. Croatia, Macedonia, and Slovenia have closed the Balkan route, and Poland’s new government, led by the Law and Justice party’s Beata Szydło, has said that Poland won’t accept any refugees, thereby refusing to honor a pledge that the previous prime minister made to accept 7,000 refugees. Even Austria, formerly one of the staunchest supporters of Merkel’s refugee policy and a vocal opponent of many anti-refugee measures implemented by other countries, has turned its back on open-door values. It has capped the number of migrants permitted and the number of asylum applications accepted per day, built a fence along a section of the country’s border with Slovenia, and sent the army out to enforce these regulations. Other EU countries have implemented similar policies directed at dissuading migrants from arriving at, let alone staying within, their borders.

Given that such anti-refugee policies are now the new European norm, Merkel’s deal with Turkey makes more sense. This doesn’t absolve Merkel for signing an agreement that is much less idealistic and humanitarian than her rhetoric, and the EU must not lose sight of the human rights and the humanitarian needs of asylum seekers. Yet for all of Merkel’s power, Germany is just one of 28 EU member states, and even Nils Muižnieks, the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights and an outspoken critic of the EU–Turkey deal, recently noted, “no national solution to this migratory challenge is possible. It’s an illusion that you can deal with this by yourself; it’s an illusion that you can foist the responsibility onto other countries, onto your neighboring countries.”

Germany's Christian Democratic Union secretary general Peter Tauber and German Chancellor and leader of the CDU Angela Merkel vote on a resolution about refugees at the CDU party congress in Karlsruhe, Germany, December 2015.
Germany's Christian Democratic Union secretary general Peter Tauber and German Chancellor and leader of the CDU Angela Merkel vote on a resolution about refugees at the CDU party congress in Karlsruhe, Germany, December 2015.  
Ralph Orlowski / Reuters

Unfortunately, it seems that Merkel’s Germany will continue to be a solitary advocate for coherent responses to the crisis until the rest of the EU realizes that it’s impossible for a single country to solve a continental problem, even if the country in question is Germany. Given that the EU member states have remained stubbornly uncooperative in the face of numerous pleas by leading EU officials, abject human desperation in refugee camps such as Idomeni, and multiple terrorist attacks in the core of western Europe—including one just blocks from the building that houses the European Commission—it’s difficult to imagine what could persuade the various member states to work together to solve the crisis.

If, however, EU member states do decide to cooperate, then the European Commission has plans in place for how to proceed: the Juncker Commission has made migration a primary focus of its planning efforts and has suggested steps that would involve empowering the EU border security agency Frontex, investing in integration programs, and ensuring that EU asylum rules are uniformly applied. 

That Merkel has put together a deal that will in fact allow refugees to enter Europe, albeit through a controversial and prolonged process, is a victory for her pro-refugee stance. Doubly so, in fact, because the terms of the agreement don’t require the EU to compromise its member accession standards or to alter Schengen Area participation requirements in order to allow Turkey to join, as many observers feared would happen. Of course, the deal may yet come crashing down around Merkel if Greece and Turkey can’t implement it, but the agreement at least gives Merkel a chance to counterbalance rampant and racist populism with pragmatism and humanitarianism. In Europe’s increasingly anti-refugee climate, this principled leadership, although ugly work, is sorely needed.

  • CLAIRE GREENSTEIN is a Ph.D. candidate in comparative politics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a 2015–16 Fellow in the Berlin Program for Advanced German and European Studies at the Freie Universität Berlin. BRANDON TENSLEY is a 2015–16 Luce Scholar in Thailand. He was a 2012–13 Fulbright Scholar in Germany.
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