“In refugee camps in Lebanon there are thousands upon thousands [of people], and if we say ‘all of you can come,’ all of them will come from there, and they will come from Africa too, and we won’t be able to deal with it,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel told a 14-year-old Palestinian refugee who had moved to Germany from Lebanon and who asked Merkel why she was facing deportation after four years in the country. “Sometimes politics is tough,” Merkel explained before the girl, Reem Sahwil, burst into tears. A video of the encounter, which continues with the German chancellor stepping off the stage and comforting the crying girl, has gone viral and many viewers around the world have taken Merkel, “the ice queen,” to task for not flinching after the girl started crying.
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Following the media storm, the German government announced that Sahwil will get legal status in the country, but it was actually Merkel’s initial reaction, which other than a comforting pat, didn’t offer the 14-year-old refugee girl anything, more frankly reflects current European foreign policy. Five years ago, when bureaucrats in Brussels invited foreign journalists for a tour of European institutions, one of the things that they boasted about was European foreign aid. Naturally, the continued economic crisis has eaten into the scope of European assistance to its neighbors to the east and south. But it appears that more than the financial issue, the European Union under German leadership has in practice given up on its aspirations to repair the world, and the only answer that it has for others’ problems is that “life is tough.”
Such a policy is also reflected in the Greek economic crisis. Even the International Monetary Fund, which has been promoting an aggressive capitalist economic ideology around the world for dozens of years already, stated that extracting Greece from the economic hole in which it has sunk will require that it been given debt relief. But the response by Merkel, and other EU heads of government to Greece’s plight is simple: Life is tough and the debt to German banks has to be paid in full. The fact that the Greeks themselves have voted twice against the austerity that has been forced upon them from Europe, once in January in the election of a left-wing government headed by the Syriza party and then again directly in this month’s referendum, is also not important: The Germans aren’t flinching in the face of girls’ tears or of democratic decisions by other countries.
This policy is most prominent when it comes to how Europe has been dealing with the millions who are seeking to flee oppressive regimes and relentless civil war to the south and the east. Like the pat on the back of the crying girl, who then gets legal status, the Europeans are trying to save those refugees who are drowning in the Mediterranean; no one wants to see bodies floating on the water. But they are devoting most of their efforts to attempts to prevent the refugees from setting out for Europe.
Among the approaches approved by the EU in what officials in Brussels have called the fight against human smuggling rings what stands out is the plan to send commando forces to destroy fishing boats so that the refugees cannot embark on their journey. In the process, the EU is relegating them to remaining in the midst of the civil war in Libya or to look for new and more dangerous ways to cross the sea. According to British media reports, the Europeans have even opened negotiations with the regime in the East African country of Eritrea over a tightening of its border controls so that citizens of one of the most oppressive regimes in the world will be barred their only chance for a better life.
There are those who will say that sometimes politics is indeed tough and that it’s better that European leaders forgo their pretentions to repair the world and admit that their first priority is the interests of their citizens alone. But this approach also carries a price. In Athens, the repeated humiliation of the left-wing Syriza party, which tried to restore self-respect and hope to the Greeks, is expected to bring about an additional strengthening of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party. The neo-Nazis are expected to the biggest beneficiary in elections that the political chaos in the country has been leading to and which escalated after the rescue plan with the EU.
The Europeans are also expected to pay a price closer to home for the tough stance with respect to those desperate Africans and Middle Easterners. First of all, the Islamic State—also known as ISIS or ISIL—has proven more than once that it is capable of inflicting its pain even in the heart of classic Europe. It would be nave to think that the residents of the Middle East and North Africa can simply be allowed to solve their problems by themselves without Europeans being hit by the shrapnel in the form of young Europeans who derive inspiration from the horrors committed by radical Islam.
But more than the danger from terrorism, it is disturbing to think what could happen when the political center in Europe gives up on its high-minded ideology and acknowledges that it is only interested in the original residents of the continent. Why should voters in Berlin or Amsterdam vote for a watered-down version rather than casting their votes for the real thing—the populist extreme right-wing parties that are already gaining support the likes of which the continent hasn’t seen for twenty years?