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Neighbors Critical of Angela Merkel’s Migration Policy May End Up Being Her Saving Political Grace

Europe’s migrant crisis is one of the greatest challenges to the unity of the continent since World War II.  According to some estimates, 1.3 million refugees (mainly from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan) have entered the European Union illegally since the start of 2015.

The EU’s response to the crisis has been slow, erratic and haphazard, and has deepened existing divisions among member states.  Germany initially welcomed the migrants with open arms, while other European states saw dangers in the massive influx that ensued and erected barriers to the tens of thousands of refugees making their way every day from Turkey through the Balkans northwards to the heart of Europe.  These border closures threatened to wipe away the Schengen agreement, a central pillar of European unity guaranteeing free movement throughout the union.  

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who had enthusiastically thrown open her country’s borders to migrants in the summer of 2015, has opposed plans by her southern neighbors to close off the migrant route stretching from Greece’s northern border with Macedonia to Germany’s Austrian frontier.  Central European states, collectively known as the Višegrad Four (Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic), have criticized Merkel’s Willkommenskultur and rejected an EU plan, backed by the Chancellor and agreed to by the union last autumn, to distribute approximately 160,000 migrants who had arrived in Italy and Greece among all member states.  Hungary’s Victor Orban, the first to build a fence to keep migrants out, accused Berlin of “moral imperialism,” and called for a national referendum on EU migration policy.  Slovakia took the EU to court over its redistribution plan.

Austria, the Višegrad Four and leaders of the Western Balkan states located along the migrant route  (including both EU members Slovenia and Croatia, and non-EU countries like Serbia and Macedonia) met in a mini-summit last month to coordinate their rolling up of the welcome mat.  Austria’s announcement on February 17 that it was setting up random checkpoints on its borders, and establishing a cap on the number of refugees that it would allow into the country, effectively suspended the Schengen agreement.  Merkel responded to this move: “When someone erects a border, someone else has to suffer.  That’s not my Europe.”  A fence erected by Macedonia on its southern border left tens of thousands of refugees stranded in Greece, a country already reeling from a severe economic crisis. 

With the redistribution plan in tatters and razor wire going up all along her southern periphery, Merkel pinned her hopes for preserving a unified European migration policy on a deal with Turkey to stem the flow of refugees making the dangerous voyage over the Aegean in rubber dinghies.  At a summit with the EU in November, Turkey agreed to crack down on refugee traffickers in exchange for three billion euros.   However, Turkey subsequently did little to stop the human deluge that was crashing on the shores of Greece.

Meanwhile, as hundreds of thousands of migrants continued to make their way to Germany, Merkel was confronted with rising opposition at home to her open borders policy, and an increase in support for the anti-immigrant Alternative für Deutschland (AfD).   Polls showed that German voters’ confidence in the Chancellor’s leadership was eroding.  Further action was needed if Merkel’s ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU) was to avoid a catastrophe in regional elections on March 13.

At the Chancellor’s urging, the EU called another Turkey summit last week which resulted in the outline of an agreement whereby Greece would return all migrants (including Syrians and Iraqis) back to Turkey.  In exchange, the EU agreed to give Turkey an additional three billion euro on top of the funds already pledged in November.  The other terms of the emerging accord are complex and challenging:  European leaders agreed to a) admit one Syrian refugee from Turkey’s camps into the union for every migrant returned to Turkey, b) lift visa requirements for Turkish visitors to the EU by June 2016, and c) immediately re-start Turkey’s long-stalled EU accession talks.  Although presented as a consensus document, this plan was largely hammered out between Merkel and her Turkish counterpart Ahmet Davutoglu behind the backs of the EU’s other members, many of whom stated after the summit that the agreement, especially the commitment to visa free travel for 80 million Turks, would be a political non-starter.  The final agreement was kicked down the road to the next EU Summit on March 17-18.  

Immediately after the summit, Western Balkan states along the migrant route began closing their borders, effectively shutting down a pipeline along which more than a million refugees had made their way to Germany during the last year.  Ironically, EU leaders have described their agreement with Turkey, which would turn away refugees and cut off their road to Europe, as necessary to reopen their own borders and save Schengen.

Although Merkel herself tried to justify this shaky accord by the need to simultaneously reestablish open borders in Europe and save Greece from humanitarian disaster, some observers saw her actions as less purely altruistic and more fundamentally Machiavellian:  With eyes on the German regional elections, it was critical for Merkel to be seen by her electorate as making efforts to curtail the refugee flow which had inundated Germany last year with no signs of letting up at the beginning of 2016.  By ramming through an agreement which would see refugees returned to Turkey, Merkel was hoping to appease a possible populist revolt in the German regional elections.

Angela Merkel’s criticism of Austria, the Višegrad Four and the Western Balkan states for closing borders and erecting fences was likely sincere given the surprising passion with which she had welcomed the refugees last summer.  But privately, she may have also seen these efforts on the part of her neighbors to shut down the migrant route to Germany as a saving grace for her own domestic political fortunes.  This tacit acceptance of a nation’s right to protect its borders in times of emergency and her backroom deal with Davutoglu, which had so agitated her EU colleagues, need to be seen in the light of the Chancellor’s efforts to avert her own electoral disaster.  In the end, her attempt to simultaneously maintain pan-European unity on migration and please the German voter was insufficient and ultimately unsuccessful.  The CDU’s drubbing at the polls on Sunday was mainly due to decreasing support for Angela Merkel’s migration policy and she emerges from the German regional elections in a weakened position, albeit with public approval ratings still above 50% that would be the envy of any EU leader.  As she looks forward to the 2017 general elections, the Chancellor may end up thanking those neighbors, who were so adamant in their efforts to shut off the migrant tap in 2016, for ensuring her political future.