Europe's Refugee Disaster Merkel Losing Her Patience with Lack of EU Solidarity

The German government feels it has been left in the lurch by most of its EU partners on asylum policy. Even refugee hardliner Horst Seehofer, Germany's interior minister, has some choice words for Austria.
German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer with Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz in 2018: "If we do nothing, we are strengthening the political fringes."

German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer with Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz in 2018: "If we do nothing, we are strengthening the political fringes."


Late in the afternoon on Tuesday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel made her way to the Reichstag, the seat of the German parliament, for a meeting of her conservative parliamentary group. It was an important meeting, given the unrest that had begun spreading in her party once it became clear that Germany would offer its assistance following the tragedy in the Moria refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos. The lawmakers from the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), wanted an explanation from the chancellor.

Why should Germany once again shoulder the burden pretty much on its own? What about the other countries in Europe? Where was Spain, Austria and, most of all, France, Germany's closest and, until now at least, most reliable partner in the European Union?

They are all questions Merkel would like answers to as well.

It is always the same situation when the refugee issue comes up. On Lesbos, a refugee camp goes up in flames and most European heads of government cross their arms and look away. It is a further demonstration of "the entire wretchedness of European asylum policy," the German chancellor griped on Tuesday. Everyone knew, she went on, about the "indefensible conditions" in the camps. But nothing, she said, is more difficult in the European Union than the question as to how refugees should be distributed. Even finance negotiations, she complained, are child's play by comparison.

Lawmakers from the CDU and CSU say they haven't seen the chancellor so angry in quite some time. And that is saying something. The German chancellor hardly ever loses her temper, no matter if she has again become the target of abuse from U.S. President Donald Trump or if a pandemic has halted public life around the world. These days, though, Merkel is struggling to keep her cool.

A European Failure

Germany's current stint as holder of the rotating Council of the EU presidency was supposed to be the grand finale to Merkel's tenure as chancellor. On the Brussels stage, Merkel wanted to show the world just how strong Europe still is despite shifting geo-political alignments and the trauma brought on by the coronavirus. Efforts to battle climate change were to be an important part of that, as was the EU’s relationship with China. But then, the refugee camp on Lesbos went up in flames and a new question arose: What to do with the almost 13,000 refugees who had been packed into the mostly destroyed camp.

And that question has again shown how divided Europe is on a central issue - and how badly it has failed.

Berlin had hardly stated that it was prepared to take in just over 1,500 refugees who had been living in camps in Greece before Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz announced: "We will not be following the German path on this issue." Welcome to the EU.


The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 39/2020 (September 19, 2020) of DER SPIEGEL.

Merkel, who has seen her popularity skyrocket from an already high level in recent months, suddenly finds herself in a bind - on both domestic and foreign policy. The drama on Lesbos, the suffering of thousands of people who are suddenly living on the streets without a roof over their heads following the fire, has suddenly rekindled a situation that had recently faded into the background. And now, once again, Germany and Merkel's coalition government with the Social Democrats (SPD) is quarrelling about whether to show compassion or obstinance. Conservatives are worried about putting wind in the sails of the populists while the SPD sees an opportunity to divide the conservatives and pose as moral guardians.

Refugee children on Lesbos: "We will not be following the German path on this issue."

Refugee children on Lesbos: "We will not be following the German path on this issue."

Foto: Daniel Etter / LAIF

In Europe, meanwhile, nothing is moving forward. There is no mechanism for dealing with refugees and no plan in place for quickly and efficiently distributing them among member states. And that has been the case since the refugee crisis began all the way back in 2015. There is no solution in sight.

Merkel, of course, shares some of the blame. Many in other EU capitals seem to assume that Germany will ultimately take care of the problem on its own, likely a function of Merkel's unilateral decision back in 2015 to take in hundreds of thousands of refugees. It is a decision that continues to overshadow all European migrant policy debates even today.

And it has been easy to see this week just how sensitive the issue still is within her party and in her governing coalition. It was only with great effort that Merkel was able to find a compromise that everyone could more-or-less accept: her party, the Social Democrats, the Greeks and even Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, who is known for not being particularly flexible on the refugee issue.

Since the fire in Moria, the SPD has been demanding that Germany take in significantly more refugees than the original number of 150 unaccompanied minors named by Seehofer, a member of the CSU. Saskia Esken, co-leader of the SPD, insisted that Berlin agree to accept several thousand refugees, though Finance Minister Olaf Scholz, who is the SPD's candidate for the Chancellery in next year's elections, declined to identify a concrete number. He knows full well that the SPD's core voters are no longer as reliably pro-refugee as they used to be.

At the beginning of this week, though, things began moving quickly. On Monday afternoon, the Interior Ministry in Berlin received detailed information from the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) regarding a group of 408 families being housed in camps on five Greek islands - a total of 1,553 people.

Extreme Frustration

Surprisingly, that led even Seehofer to support the idea of taking in a larger number of refugees, particularly because even the Greeks were in favor of the idea. Previously, Athens had been concerned that the mass transfer of asylum-seekers from the Greek islands to other EU countries could be seen as a reward for the arsonists. But the Greek government had nothing against the transfer of pre-approved families that didn't just come from the island of Lesbos.

At 7 p.m., Seehofer headed over to the Chancellery with the idea, and Merkel was immediately convinced. The next morning, the minister informed conservative lawmakers, and news of the plan was leaked to journalists, which infuriated Scholz. But after a telephone discussion between Merkel, Seehofer and Scholz, tempers were calmed and the plan was put to paper. The SPD added a sentence and then, at 5 p.m., Scholz sent a text message: "We agree."

Merkel is lucky that Seehofer didn't stand in the way as he has so often on the issue in the past. During the 2015 refugee crisis, he accused her on more than one occasion of having broken the law. This time around, though, he stood at her side.

More than that, Seehofer is also extremely frustrated about the unwillingness of Germany's EU partners to accept refugees from Greece. On the sidelines of a recent meeting in parliament, he listed all those who have, from his point of view, left Germany in the lurch. And it's pretty much everybody.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen: "It won't be enough just to hand out a few warm blankets."

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen: "It won't be enough just to hand out a few warm blankets."


The Italians, Cypriots, Spanish, Portuguese, Greeks and Maltese do not, he said, "want to be stuck with all of the refugees" on their own. The Scandinavian countries, he said, are "imperiously reserved" while the Visegrád countries (the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia) along with Austria don't want to hear anything about refugee distribution.

"I am disappointed by the position of our Austrian neighbors to refuse to accept a limited number of asylum-seekers from Greece," Seehofer told DER SPIEGEL. "In a situation like this, Europe must demonstrate unity. If we do nothing, we are strengthening the political fringes."

But the German government has been particularly disappointed by the French. They didn't react at all to a request from Germany - despite Paris having recently been so cooperative regarding the coronavirus bailout package.

The debate as to which group should be distributed throughout Europe under what conditions is difficult in part because it isn't clear what happens then. Should they automatically be granted residency permits and allowed to stay? Or do they have to go through asylum proceedings, which could end in deportation? The answers to such questions diverge widely – both in Germany and in the rest of Europe.

Uncertain Futures

Still, it is clear what will happen to the 1,553 people that Germany has accepted: They have already been granted asylum status and can now begin establishing their new lives. Following their arrival, they will be distributed among different German states, where they are to be integrated and hopefully find work.

By comparison, the situation for those who remain in Greece is much worse. Even those who have received asylum status, laments the human rights organization Pro Asyl, face an extremely uncertain future.

Merkel, Seehofer and Scholz have made things rather easy on themselves by only accepting those refugees who have already been granted asylum status. But pressure on the chancellor to take even more of those who are suffering on the Greek islands is growing.

With many European countries refusing to help, some German states are insisting that they be allowed to help on their own. Both Thuringia and Berlin would each like to accept several hundred refugees from the islands.

Financing such an effort would not be problematic, say officials in Thuringia. "As a state, we would assign the people to the municipalities and then cover the costs," says Thuringia Migration Minister Dirk Adams, a member of the Green Party. But, he adds, he doesn't believe that the price tag will be the decisive factor.

Most of the migrants in the camps on the Greek islands are from Afghanistan, but in Germany, not even half of asylum applications from the country are approved. Most of the others are just given temporary, tolerated status or are made to leave Germany immediately. The German government, though, is likely interested in avoiding the arrival of too many refugees with unclarified asylum status, at least so long as no European solution is in sight.

"Obligatory Solidarity Mechanisms”

A new attempt to take a step toward resolving the impasse is planned for next Wednesday, when the European Commission will present its repeatedly delayed reform package for asylum and migration policy. It isn't yet known what the details of the plan will look like, partially a function of the fact that last-minute talks are still underway. A number of open questions remain, such the kinds of cases in which it can be decided at the external EU border who has a chance for asylum and who does not.

"Those who refuse to show solidarity on migration policy cannot lay claim to solidarity benefits elsewhere."

German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer

What is clear, though, as European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said in the European Parliament on Wednesday, the Dublin Regulation - whereby the country where a migrant first sets foot in Europe is responsible for the entirety of asylum proceedings – will become a thing of the past.

Furthermore, deportations are to be sped up. "One of our focuses will be on the more effective repatriation of migrants who have no right to asylum in Europe," says Ylva Johansson, the European Commissioner for Home Affairs. She is also pushing for "obligatory solidarity mechanisms." European Union member states, she says, must be able to rely on the knowledge that "other EU countries will take refugees from them in emergency situations." To get around the obstinance of countries like Hungary, there are to be various options for demonstrating that solidarity. "But to be clear," says Johansson, "it won't be enough just to hand out a few warm blankets."

It will now be up to Germany, which holds the rotating Council of the EU presidency until the end of the year, to move the plans forward. Still, hardly anyone in Brussels believes that the ambitious EU asylum reform package will be passed by then.

But what if the EU is unable to agree on a clear model for how refugees are to be distributed in the future? In such a case, Berlin could sharpen its tone and begin considering financial consequences. "One thing is clear: European solidarity is not a one-way street," says Interior Minister Seehofer. "Those who refuse to show solidarity on migration policy cannot lay claim to solidarity benefits elsewhere." Still, though, he says, there can be different ways to demonstrate solidarity."

Thomas Oppermann, a senior SPD lawmaker in the German parliament, is critical of Germany's recent tone with countries that do not want to accept any refugees. But he also says: "Of course we need a European migration policy. But ultimately, I can't force any country to take in refugees against its will. Those who don't wish to do so must make a contribution of equal value to solving humanitarian catastrophes."

"German Should Not Act Unilaterally Again”

Members of the governing coalition in Berlin already have a sense this week's refugee decision won't likely be the last. Among Merkel's conservatives, there are widespread concerns that the issue could flare up again at any time – and every time it does, the party will find itself between a rock and a hard place.

"Germany should not act unilaterally again. That sends the wrong message. All further solutions must be European."

Andrea Lindholz (CSU), chair of the Domestic Affairs Committee in German parliament

The number of incoming refugees, to be sure, has dropped significantly from its apex in 2015, with no more than 100,000 of them expected to arrive in Germany this year. But German conservatives are extremely wary of ceding any ground to the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party. Many are adamant that Germany should only accept refugees once it is clear that other European countries are prepared to help.

"I think accepting 408 families from the Greek islands that have already been granted asylum is acceptable," says Andrea Lindholz (CSU), chair of the Domestic Affairs Committee in the German parliament. She says it is important to assist Greece in this difficult situation. "But Germany should not act unilaterally again. That sends the wrong message. All further solutions must be European."

SPD lawmaker Helge Lindh, meanwhile, reiterates that conditions such as those found at the Moria camp cannot be allowed ever again. "Otherwise, we're just going to be talking about the same problem over and over again."

Merkel, of course, doesn't have much time left if she wants to find a lasting solution. In about 12 months, her tenure as German chancellor will come to an end. Still, she will likely work until the very end to find a solution to European asylum policy, if for no other reason than to protect her international reputation.

On Tuesday, at the meeting of the conservative parliamentary group, Merkel had a rather unpleasant anecdote to share. She and other European leaders, Merkel said, were recently rebuked in a video chat for their approach to migrant policy. The admonition came from the president of China.