Angela Merkel’s words ‘we can manage this’ during the 2015 refugee crisis cemented one of her most significant legacies: the EU’s approach to migration. Years later, however, the policy is so explosive her successors avoid even broaching the subject.
Germans will head to the polls on September 26 to elect a new Bundestag, or federal parliament, in an election that will mark the end of Angela Merkel’s 16-year tenure as chancellor.
Merkel will step down as head of government after her party, the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) led coalitions for four consecutive terms.
Vying to replace her are Olaf Scholz of the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD), Armin Laschet for the CDU and Annalena Baerbock for the Greens in what will likely be a three-party coalition. The SPD leads in the latest opinion polls.
With her trademark pragmatism, Merkel has steered the European Union’s largest economy through a number of crises, playing a major role in the 2010 sovereign debt crisis and the social fallout that resulted from austerity measures; more recently, she was instrumental in backing a common European Union response to the pandemic crisis.
But perhaps one of her most significant legacies is on European migration policy, first triggered by her decision in 2015 to grant asylum in Germany to more than a million refugees, mostly from Syria. With her now well-known words wir schaffen das, “we can manage this”, she declared Germany open to refugees, shaping her own country and the EU for years to come.
The bloc is arguably still feeling the aftershocks of that decision, with populist leaders in many member states capitalising on the events that followed. Viktor Orban cemented support for his model of “illiberal democracy” in Hungary, Poland’s nationalist Law and Justice party brought religion closer to the state, and Italian far-right leader Matteo Salvini swept to power on an anti-migrant ticket in the years that followed the 2015-16 refugee crisis. In Germany, the anti-migrant and anti-Islam party Alternative for Germany (AfD) became the third-largest party in the Bundestag at the last federal election in 2017.
And while some of the EU’s populist leaders who ran on single-issue, anti-migrant platforms have since lost momentum, their influence on the bloc’s policies towards migrants and refugees endures.
As US and NATO troops withdrew from Afghanistan, a number of European countries were quick to express their opposition to a possible repeat of the 2015 refugee crisis – despite the fact that most refugees remain in neighbouring countries, with Pakistan and Iran hosting 2.2 million Afghan refugees out of the 2.6 million registered with the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) across the world before the latest crisis began.
“Based on lessons learned, the EU and its Member States stand determined to act jointly to prevent the recurrence of uncontrolled large-scale illegal migration movements faced in the past,” EU affairs ministers said in a statement about the Afghanistan withdrawal in late August.
"Stay there – and we will support the region to help the people there," said the interior ministers of Austria, Denmark, and the Czech Republic as they refused a EU proposal for shared resettlement quotas, in what Human Rights Watch described as a “monstrous PR campaign to tell Afghans (and European voters) that those fleeing Afghanistan should not even think about finding safe haven in Europe.”
Meanwhile, the EU border agency has been accused of unlawful pushbacks at the EU’s external borders, refugee camps have made headlines for their squalid and overcrowded conditions, and European leaders have been paying Libya and Turkey to stop asylum seekers from reaching Europe. Since 2015, EU countries have failed to agree on a common asylum policy that would ensure a redistribution of responsibilities across different member states, as some countries remain vehemently opposed.
Migration has become such an intractable issue that all three main German political parties have stayed away from the topic in this election campaign.
“In the campaign for the upcoming election, migration and asylum is not really a topic because it's so difficult and so unpopular, and so hard to resolve,” Andreas Bock of the European Council on Foreign Relations, a pan-European think tank, told TRT World.
“It remains a topic most politicians are really afraid of, even though it is and will be one of the global challenges. So we can't really say that 2015 and 2016 and the years after have made a tremendous impact on how parties discuss migration and the asylum question,” Bock added. “If you take a look at the programmes of the Conservatives and Social Democrats … they haven't really changed a lot [on] this issue since the last election in 2017.”
Someone’s else problem
All major German parties support the European Commission’s New Pact on Migration and Asylum, first proposed in 2020. One of the pact’s key proposals is introducing quotas for relocating refugees within the EU according to a principle of shared responsibility. The idea is particularly supported by the Social Democrats, the Greens, and the Left party, while the conservative camp also emphasises the need to prevent a future influx of asylum seekers.
“We will push for a functioning European asylum system that strikes the balance between solidarity and responsibility,” a spokesperson for the Social Democrats told the online newspaper EURACTIV.
But the pact reached a deadlock precisely on the issue of “mandatory solidarity” it introduced, which would make it compulsory for member states to take in asylum seekers according to their GDP and population, or face penalties, with some countries including Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic staunchly opposing the idea.
Another tenet of the pact is increasing support to third countries to prevent people from reaching the EU. As western allies withdrew from Afghanistan, Brussels drafted a proposal for a €600 million ($703 million) EU package for Afghanistan’s neighbouring countries.
But some have already opposed the plan.
"Pakistan is in no condition right now to accept any more refugees," Pakistan’s national security adviser told reporters at a news conference in the capital Islamabad last week.
For Gerald Knauss, chairman of the Berlin-based European Stability Initiative, the argument about Merkel’s refugee bet in 2015 can also be turned on its head as an example that a humane refugee policy does not necessarily have to come with a huge approval rate price tag.
“Angela Merkel is still the most popular politician in Germany today,” Knauss told TRT World. “So what it shows is that it is actually possible to welcome a large number of people and remain a popular politician. It's very important in democracies that leaders can make those decisions and not pay for it with their political career.”
He believes the key decision was putting in place policies that would contribute to refugees’ integration.
“Merkel didn't open the border, because there was no Shengen border between Germany and Austria, Germany and Switzerland. What she did do is she said when these people arrive, Germany would mobilise the resources to look after them,” Knauss said. “But it worked because there was broad support for it in the public. All the parties [at the time] supported it. It wasn't Merkel who made a decision and the rest of Germany was against it.”