Unilateral German action on the border is a game changer in Europe

Editor’s note: This post was originally published on Patreon on 2 July 2018.

By the way, in the last post I failed to explain the European context. Why does this matter? It’s not just about refugees. It’s about German hegemony and European cohesion. Let me explain below.

The German Federal System

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One thing a lot of people fail to appreciate is the degree to which Germany believes in federalism. And by that I mean that the whole German political system is set up to spread the wealth and to give equal treatment to all parts of the country, as much as is feasible. Everything in Germany is about the Bund, the Federation. You see that word “Bund” everywhere when it comes to German government activities.

So when it comes to refugees, the Germans spread the wealth too. Refugees are dispersed around the country in large cities and little villages alike proportionately. That way, everyone shares in the responsibilities, just as everyone is supposed to share in government largesse. And it has always been like this.

If it weren’t this way, Bavaria would be much more radicalized than it is today. That’s where all the refugees are entering Germany. It has a large population of 13 million people. But that’s less than one sixth of the total German population of 83 million. And if Bavaria had to absorb all the refugees entering the country, they would all go to the big cities. After all, what Syrian or Afghan refugee wants to live in a Bavarian village in the middle of nowhere? So the responsibilities would be extremely unevenly distributed.

Burden sharing in Europe on refugees and otherwise

That’s what the Germans expect from their European partners too. For the Germans, the EU is an extension of the German federal system. The EU is supposed to about burden-sharing in their minds. And many Germans feel that they have been taking on more than their fair share of burdens for far too long. This is the genesis of the AfD party, by the way.

So when it comes to immigration, the Germans want other countries to share their burden. This sets up a conflict with the south and the east of the European Union.

First, almost all of the migrants to Europe enter the EU through its southern borders via Greece, Italy, Spain and Portugal. Now, some immigrants could enter from the east. And many did use the Balkan route to get to Austria and Germany irrespective of whether they entered the EU through Greece first. But that route into the EU was shut during the 2015 Syrian refugee crisis.

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So the burden is on the south then. Under the Dublin Protocol, the EU country of entry is the place where immigrants granted asylum must reside. And that means, strictly speaking, countries like Greece should take the lion’s share of refugees, since that’s where they first entered the EU. But holding the Greeks or Italians to this arrangement would be grossly unfair from a burden sharing perspective. And it is fomenting populist radicalization in the politics in the south, particularly in Italy.

Meanwhile, in the east, countries such as Hungary and Poland never assented to the western liberal democracy ideal of immigration. Those are countries of outward emigration to the rest of the EU, not inbound immigration. Even the German Chancellor Helmut Kohl was saying “Deutschland ist kein Einwanderungsland – Germany is not an country of immigrants” two decades ago, despite the fact that it increasingly was. So it’s understandable that the politics in eastern Europe is anti-immigrant given the historical relative lack of diversity. You only have to watch the World Cup and see who’s on the various European football teams to understand what I’m saying.

So the eastern European countries have said they will not burden share.

Merkel refuses to go unilateral

So you have a problem. The Dublin Regulation says the southern European countries should take on the lion’s share of the immigrants seeking asylum. And that’s not politically or economically tenable. And so, the southern Europeans looked the other way as immigrants left their countries and flooded into more wealthy northern European countries like Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Austria and the Netherlands. In Germany, this is political dynamite coming to a head in the governing coalition and the chancellor Angela Merkel is looking for a solution to prevent her government from collapsing.

In a perfect world, countries like Slovakia, Romania and Bulgaria would take on a proportional number of refugees. And all of the refugees would be distributed around the EU in the perfect burden sharing way that they are spread out inside Germany. But that’s never going to happen. So conservatives in Germany like German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer wants to close the borders to these people.

That means that the Germans would be taking unilateral action – without the consent or prior agreement of its European partners. This would be a game changer in terms of post- World War 2 politics.

Angela Merkel is resistant to making that move. She would rather let her governing coalition collapse than take unilateral action.

Let’s remember that a future Germany which can take unilateral action on refugees will feel emboldened to take unilateral action on other  European issues. And we have no idea who will be German Chancellor when this occurs and what her mindset will be.

European cohesion at risk

So that’s what’s at stake here. German Chancellor Merkel will not cede ground to her Interior Minister Seehofer on this issue out of principle. And that principle is that Germany take no unilateral action — out of fear of German European hegemony. From an EU perspective, it is NOT about the actual policy itself that matters most, though that is critically important too. What matters most here is the ability and desire of the Germans to take unilateral action in a Europe that many fear is increasingly dominated by a re-united Germany.

Moreover, if Germany were to close its borders, other EU countries would feel compelled to follow suit – certainly Austria would. The Schengen Agreement would be toast. And one of the major planks regarding the benefits of the EU, open borders, would be resigned to the dustbin of history. Some believe this would mark the beginning of the end of the EU itself. Perhaps so


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