Earlier this summer, after months during which Europeans saw the number of refugees reaching their shores climbing, Germany warned that without a joint European solution the ongoing crisis would eventually threaten freedom of movement on the continent – the basis upon which is build the European Union.
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Despite the warning, various countries continued to block the decision on dividing the refugee burden among EU members. Indeed, Germany announced at the beginning of the week that it is temporarily renewing its border control with Austria, intent on preventing migrants who lack refugee status from entering. Following in Germany’s footsteps, Austria, Slovakia and the Netherlands renewed their border controls, and Poland is considering a similar step.
The first reason for Germany changing its treatment of refugees was the political pressure on Merkel at home. Leaders of various states informed the federal government that their ability to deal with new refugees was being stretched to the limit, and they could not accept more. Merkel’s minor coalition partner also announced that the situation could not go on, and that the decision to take in refugees unconditionally is a grave political mistake. The crisis also started showing in the chancellor’s sagging approval ratings.
A second reason for the German decision, as Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière declared, is an attempt to pressure central and eastern European countries to agree to quotas for accepting refugees in their territories. Closing Germany’s borders, and Austria’s thereafter, ramp up the pressure on Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who virulently opposes the quota plan and is likely to discover that the hordes of refugees trying to pass through his state to German refuge are forced to stay in his country.
However, it seems that the Hungarians and the rest of the EU members in the east are not getting excited. The interior ministers of the EU, who met on Monday to try to decide on quotes for absorbing refugees, did not reach agreement save for the plan to continue debating the issue in the next meeting in another month. Hungary also started implementing its new draconian law to fight the entrance of refugees, in hopes that the pressure will pass from its borders to other countries.
Indeed, in the wake of the hard-handed policy adopted by Budapest, which includes the threat of arresting refugees who illegally enter the country, a new route across central Europe is beginning to take shape – from the Balkans via Croatia on to Slovenia, a member of the EU.
The third reason for Germany’s decision to close its borders goes back a few months, when the crisis had yet to become the main topic of conversation on the continent, even though the numbers of refugees reaching Europe had broken all recent records. The chancellor was embroiled in a public relations crisis in July after she told a Palestinian refugee that Germany can’t manage all the refugees, and was forced to console her after the girl cried in front of television cameras.
After the picture of toddler Aylan Kurdi, who drowned while his family was trying to cross the Aegean Sea from Turkey to Greece, awakened world sympathy, the chancellor adopted the opposite position and announced that her country would absorb every refugee in need of protection.
In the globalization age, in which the smartphone is the most important means of survival for refugees and migrants making their way toward a better future, this declaration echoed in Syrian refugee camps in Turkey, through bleeding Iraq toward the wars of distant Pakistan and Afghanistan. Last month, the Germans estimated they would absorb this year 800,000 asylum seekers – a full percent of the German population. With the publication of the decision to establish border controls between Germany and Austria, German Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel said that his country expected a million migrants to arrive – including another 200,000, some of whom would come following the chancellor’s announcement that the gates of her country were open.
Although the new decision does not prevent Syrian refugees from entering Germany, only those from other countries who have flimsier refugee claims, the Germans hope it will deter some of those considering whether it is worthwhile to embark on a precarious, expensive journey to Europe. However Berlin, which tried with the help of a positive example to lead the other EU countries into absorbing the persecuted of the Middle East and Africa in an orderly fashion, it is now leading a negative precedent of reducing freedom of movement on the continent.
In practice, the border control decision in a time of emergency is temporary and based on the Schengen Agreement on European visa policy. However, it is too early to tell what will be the long-term consequences of taking this step.
In any event, leaders of the European far right, who lead the opposition to unity and freedom of movement in particular, are already celebrating. Nigel Farage, the Eurosceptic leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party, tweeted on Sunday in the wake of Germany’s decision: “By shutting border with Austria, is clear that German government have realized the scale of their error. Schengen surely can’t survive now.”
His French counterpart, National Front leader Marie Le Pen, was more direct, tweeting “bye bye #Schengen!” on Sunday.