Open and shut: how Germany plays politics with its borders

Refugees are escorted to especially chartered trains after they arrived at the main train station in Munich. EPA/NICOLAS ARMER

Was it just a dream? Only last week, Germany made it clear that all refugees were welcome, and chancellor Angela Merkel became the Mother Teresa of European politics.

The country was able to bask in the glory of being an example of the good European – only months after Merkel had been chided for her politics of austerity towards Greece and after she had, to much criticism worldwide, told a young Palestinian girl that “we cannot take everyone in”.

But barely a week after the hearty welcome, the country closed its borders with Austria, the route by which the majority of refugees were arriving. Police forces and helpers in Bavaria were simply unable to cope with the massive influx of people – more than 20,000 refugees had arrived in Munich alone over the course of the weekend, more than UK prime minister David Cameron said his country was prepared to take in over the next five years.

Goodbye Schengen?

Does the closure of the borders with Austria mean the end of the Schengen agreement, which abolished the European Union’s internal borders? And what are the broader implications for Europe?

On one level, the sudden closure of Germany’s border is simply an act of necessity. The German police, bureaucracy and welfare state simply cannot cope with the influx.

The Schengen arrangements explicitly allow for the short-term suspension of the agreement in exceptional circumstances. This happened last time in 2011, when France reintroduced border controls with Italy in order to stop large-scale immigration from Tunisia.

But there is a more important, more long-term element. Immigration is always a test case for asserting national sovereignty. And it is also a clear marker of sovereignty in international relations. One of the key characteristics of a nation-state is that it has clearly delineated borders that it has the capacity to control.

German police register migrants at a border station in Freilassing. Reuters/Dominic Ebenbichler

The Schengen agreement has, like so many European treaties, fudged the issue: it started life in 1985 as an agreement between the European governments of Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. It was only operational from March 1995 onwards. And it only subsequently became part of the complicated set of European treaties and part of EU law in 1999 (as part of the Treaty of Amsterdam).

For its critics, Schengen is the symbol of a faceless and dangerous European superstate that diluted the character of individual nations; for its supporters, the embodiment of the freedom of movement. And for many continental Europeans (and many holidaymakers) a convenient fact of life.

Schengen has never just been about border controls. It has also been about what the German Foreign Office calls, on its website, a “common area of security and justice”.

This has always come with a key paradox for the signatories: freedom of movement on the one hand, but monitoring and control of that movement, especially on the borders, on the other.

Symbolic gestures

Merkel’s welcome was, for once, an act of true political leadership. It was a direct reaction to the burning of several houses that had been designated as asylum seekers sanctuaries, and campaigning by far-right wing groups.

Merkel wanted to send out a signal to Germany’s population as well as to the world: xenophobia would not be tolerated by the government; instead, the government would encourage those to come who genuinely required asylum. In that sense, the policy of open borders has been a gigantic social experiment. Many Germans have welcomed the refugees with open arms. But many others, silent, are unlikely to be so happy. The German government is well aware of this.

Germany’s welcome message was also a brilliant piece of public diplomacy and symbolic politics: all the capital that German foreign policy seemed to have lost in the Greek crisis appeared to have been rebuilt within a week. Germany’s self-interest was only rarely mentioned; given its own ageing population and a very low birth rate, immigration is necessary to guarantee welfare and pension payments in the future.

Angela Merkel’s government sending out mixed signals on immigration. Reuters/Fabrizio Bensch

Realpolitik at work

But Merkel and her government would hardly have been so naive as to assume that the social experiment could last forever. It is plausible to see this whole episode as part of Germany’s long-term foreign policy strategy, about what the German government thinks about the core of European integration – and how the European Union should develop.

Germany wants to put (symbolic) pressure on countries in Eastern Europe, Poland, for example – but also in the West, like France which has taken fewer asylum seekers than one might have expected. It is significant that so-called “transit countries” such as Hungary and Greece seem to be off the hook for the time being.

In his recent State of the Union speech, the president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, bemoaned its lack of unity, explicitly referring to the refugee crisis. The German government’s almost unilateral initiative to welcome asylum seekers was somewhat at odds with Juncker’s call for a united approach. And the subsequent closure of its border with Austria was, like Germany’s actions during the Greek crisis, a direct challenge to the European Commission’s authority to frame policy on this issue.

A makeshift bedroom is prepared for migrants at a sports hall in Hanau, Germany. Reuters/Kai Pfaffenbach

Many have interpreted Germany’s recent policy towards refugees in the light of its own experiences of violence and mass migration that make the right to asylum one of the most cherished parts of its constitution. But “sovereignty through integration” has also been the recipe for Germany’s success story in Europe for the past 50 years.

Germany would like its European partners to adopt this model as the blueprint for the future of the European Union – but this model that continues to highlight national sovereignty and intergovernmental co-ordination is at odds with the bureaucratic route preferred by the European Commission or the democratic one suggested by the European Parliament.

Whether the German plan will work out – as a social experiment and an act of political leadership at home and as a call to action for a more concerted effort to shape the foundations of the European Union – remains to be seen. It was, in any event, worth trying.

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