Angela Merkel: Europe's Conscience in the Face of a Refugee Crisis; Driven by History and Economic Necessity, She Has Shown Compassion, Crucial Leadership

By LeBor, Adam | Newsweek, September 18, 2015 | Go to article overview

Angela Merkel: Europe's Conscience in the Face of a Refugee Crisis; Driven by History and Economic Necessity, She Has Shown Compassion, Crucial Leadership


LeBor, Adam, Newsweek


Byline: Adam LeBor

The refugees making life-threatening journeys across the Mediterranean and through Europe have a new hero--German Chancellor Angela Merkel. While Europe has largely flailed in the face of the greatest such crisis since the end of World War II, Merkel has provided rare leadership. The most powerful country in Europe expects to take in 800,000 people this year, four times as many as it did in 2014. Instead of tightening border controls and insisting the country has no room for more refugees, as some governments have done, the German government has made it clear that it will welcome large numbers of the people fleeing the conflict in Syria and other troubled parts of the Middle East, Africa and South Asia. Asylum seekers have taken to calling the German leader "Mama Merkel."

The chancellor's most significant move in the crisis was her government's announcement on August 24 that it would no longer apply the Dublin Protocol to Syrian refugees. Under the protocol, refugees are tested to see if they first entered the European Union via another member state. If officials determine that to be the case, they can return the asylum seekers to that state. Germany also canceled all planned deportations of Syrians. The move was welcomed by the European Commission, the executive arm of the European Union, as an "act of European solidarity."

Not long ago, Merkel's image in Europe was less sympathetic. As Greece teetered on the brink of leaving the eurozone, she and her government stood resolute in demanding that the left-wing Greek government accept new austerity measures before it could receive another financial bailout--even if it meant more economic pain for ordinary Greeks. So how to explain what appears to be Merkel's sharp turn toward compassion?

Two key factors are shaping her response to the crisis, say those who know her. The first is Germany's--and Merkel's--considerable experience over the past 70 years of benefiting from the kindness of strangers. After the war, the United States and other former foes of Germany contributed huge financial and practical resources to help the country recover economically and politically. More recently, East Germans--including Merkel, who was born in West Germany but grew up in East Germany after her Lutheran father accepted a pastorate in the Soviet protectorate--were embraced by their West German neighbors after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. "Angela Merkel shows a lot of understanding for people who flee from war and despair," says Stefan Kornelius, author of Angela Merkel: The Authorized Biography. "There is no moral questioning of her motives."

The second factor motivating Merkel has little to do with generosity. Accepting skilled and educated refugees like Syrians is in Germany's economic self-interest. The German population is falling rapidly, in part because of low birth rates, and the German economic machine needs new workers.

Merkel's openness to the refugees will likely have a significant impact on Europe's broader response to the crisis. "Germany has rediscovered leadership," says Mark Leonard, director of the European Council on Foreign Relations think tank. "Germany is the critical power on the biggest issues facing many other countries in the EU." The country has an unusual ability to link disparate issues, says Leonard. "Germany can say, for example, that it will show solidarity with Eastern Europe on Russia because it is a good European. But Germany will also say that those countries need in turn to be good Europeans on the migration issue."

One of the countries least inclined to be what Merkel might consider a good European partner on the crisis--the United Kingdom--had repeatedly insisted it had no room for more refugees. But on September 3, as criticism mounted of governments that stood firm against accepting more asylum seekers, British Prime Minister David Cameron appeared to bow to the growing pressure. …

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