German authorities are seeking to stem the flow of refugees without jeopardizing the European Union’s open borders. As domestic public opinion shifts and political pressures grow, Europe’s largest economy, which benefits greatly from the bloc’s free movement of people and goods, is designing a strategy to reduce the number of refugees without undermining the basic foundations of the European Union.
The German public has become warier of immigration. In 2013, according to a Eurobarometer study, only 14 percent of Germans ranked immigration as one of the top two concerns facing their country. In May 2015, however, this increased to 45 percent. In addition, 54 percent of Germans had a negative attitude toward immigration from outside of the European Union, and 85 percent believed that additional measures should be taken to fight illegal immigration.
As the number of refugees moving to Europe spiked in mid-2015 and German Chancellor Angela Merkel made a decision in August to welcome Syrian refugees, the German public grew increasingly concerned about refugee flows. At the end of September, an opinion poll in Germany found that 51 percent of Germans were concerned about the number of refugees coming into the country — a significant shift from merely 38 percent a month earlier. Merkel herself saw her ratings deteriorate rapidly, with approval numbers falling 9 percent in October compared to the previous month.
At the same time, the sister party of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, the Bavarian Christian Social Union, as well as elements of the Chancellor’s own party, have been critical of Germany’s handling of the refugee crisis. Merkel must appease both her conservative allies and their left-wing coalition partners, the Social Democratic Party. In early November, the German coalition reached a compromise agreement regarding expedited asylum procedures for some refugees, but disagreements over broader refugee and border policies remain. Moreover, Germany is facing a highly fragmented European Union, with some countries, such as Poland, refusing to accept refugee quotas.
Germany is constrained in how it can respond to the refugee crisis. Germany’s export-oriented economy benefits greatly from open borders. Recently, some countries — including Germany itself – have temporarily restored border checks. Any moves toward creating more permanent border checkpoints within the European Union would open Pandora’s box. For years, the underlying basis of the European Union’s economic model was the free movement of goods and people. The introduction of border checks would jeopardize not only the free movement of individuals, but by extension would also impact the movement of goods and threaten to ultimately undermine the free trade regime. For Germany, avoiding the disintegration of the system of open borders is a priority.
Berlin’s strategy is thus to work with transit countries for refugees, such as Turkey and Mali, as well as refugees’ countries of origin, like Iraq and Afghanistan, to both discourage and prevent refugees from arriving in Europe. Germany’s military is conducting training for Kurds in northern Iraq and planning to provide Kurdish fighters more arms to help in the fight against Islamic State. The German military is also contributing airpower to a UN mission in Mali, a transit state for refugees and human traffickers heading to Europe. At the same time, Germany is seeking Turkey’s assistance in preventing refugees from leaving the country and embarking on a journey to Europe. Berlin is hoping to offer legal means for refugees to come to Europe, informally creating new quotas for immigration, while tightening the European Union’s external borders.
Germany’s leadership is playing a difficult balancing game. The country is attempting to manage borders without creating any impediments to free movement within the European Union, while also limiting refugee flows without officially rejecting qualified asylum seekers and engaging in the Middle East without becoming entangled in costly and unpopular military operations. At the same time, Chancellor Merkel is trying to preserve the EU’s basic principle of free movement and cox diverse European governments to accept quotas for refugees already in Europe, all while appeasing political allies and coalition partners both to the left and the right.
Following the Nov. 13 terror attacks in Paris, decision-makers in Berlin are facing a more fragmented Europe, especially when it comes to borders and refugees. German efforts to stem the flow of refugees from the Middle East and Africa are unlikely to succeed on their own, and when it comes to Syria, Germany is a small player in a crowded field of contenders wishing to shift realities on the ground. Ankara’s cooperation would help reduce the flow of refugees, but Turkey has its own constraints and security priorities, focused on Kurds and combating IS. On its own, therefore, Germany’s strategy will have little more than a modest impact of the flow of refugees to Europe in the coming months.