Berlin’s policy towards Europe is full of discrepancies.
On the one hand, Chancellor Angela Merkel and her government are spending more energy than ever before defending the European Union and the euro against emboldened nationalist forces, including within their own ranks. The vote on the third bailout package for Greece was the most recent example.
Yet shortly after, the same German government spent its energy bashing Europe, doing lasting damage to the image of the European Union’s institutions. If anything goes wrong in Germany, the blame is immediately put on Brussels.
That this unfortunate reflex is alive and well has been demonstrated during the current refugee crisis. Development Minister Gerd Müller thought nothing of accusing the European Commission, the E.U.’s executive arm, of “hesitancy.”
There were also indirect jabs at Brussels. Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier criticized the failures of the E.U.’s asylum policy. The two leading members of the government didn’t explicitly claim that the Commission was responsible. But they did nothing to stop that impression developing in Germany. Ms. Merkel did the same.
In this case, however, Ms. Merkel had every reason to shine a positive light on the work of the authorities in Brussels. The Commission hasn’t sat idly by.
On the contrary, its president Jean-Claude Juncker identified the growing migratory pressure in Europe as one of the biggest challenges of the decade earlier than many others. Shortly after Mr. Juncker’s election to commission president last summer, he declared the E.U.’s immigration policy a political priority during his five-year term.
If anything goes wrong in Germany, the blame is immediately put on Brussels.
Mr. Juncker is also the one who proposed a binding formula for settling 40,000 asylum seekers throughout the 28 members of the E.U. But he broke a taboo. Many governments howled in outrage over Brussels interference in an issue that belongs in the national domain.
The idea of a compulsory quota failed at the E.U. refugee summit in April, above all due to resistance from the British and the Eastern Europeans. Yet, somehow the fact that Ms. Merkel also fought for an asylum quota was not highlighted. She preferred to leave Mr. Juncker standing in the rain.
Since then, the E.U.’s interior ministers have been negotiating in vain over a voluntary quota. And the German government is changing its stated position.
Political lessons are sometimes learned slower in Berlin than in Brussels. Now there are growing calls in the German capital for a mandatory asylum quota – with justification.
The Baltic countries have accepted virtually no refugees. And last year, Slovakia recognized only 14 asylum seekers. It can’t stay this way. Membership of the European Union brings not only rights, such as agricultural subsidies and access to structural funds, but also responsibilities.
The Central and Eastern Europeans will have to learn this quickly. At the upcoming refugee summit in Malta in November, the subject of quotas will be on the table once again. The chancellor will probably be engaged more intensively this time around than in the first attempt.
The discussion about whether immigrants from the Balkans should be sent back to their home countries has developed in a similar fashion. Brussels pressed ahead and Berlin, again a latecomer, is now following suit.
Meanwhile, Ms. Merkel has complained that the E.U. still hasn’t agreed on a list of countries where refugees can safely return.
But the commission actually proposed such a list years ago. It failed to get the necessary majority in the E.U.’s council of interior ministers. It is likely that the chancellor and the responsible German ministers will now push harder to finally pull this majority together.
If we were to write an interim political report on developments in 2015, we would find that the most pressing problems have burst the boundaries of national policy.
In the first half of the year, the drama in Greece dominated events, in the second half of the year it will be the refugee crisis. And in both cases a European solution is needed. Berlin can reach such a solution only with Brussels, not against it.
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