WASHINGTON – Angela Merkel finds herself in a pickle. The German chancellor has just performed a major course correction on the refugee issue. She now talks about “hundreds of thousands” of the people who arrived in 2015 having to reckon with returning to their home country.
The problem for Merkel? Her latest pronouncements are not just a course correction, but also an outright abandonment of her previous stance.
After all, she had been adamant about offering all comers a long-term perspective of staying in Germany.
How to explain it all?
To save face and plead for forgiveness, Merkel’s best option is to argue that it was all a big “misunderstanding.”
The lyrics of the 1965 blues rock hit by The Animals, “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” come to mind for Merkel’s salvation:
But I’m just a soul whose intentions are good
Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood
If I seem edgy I want you to know
That I never mean to take it out on you
Sometimes I find myself long regretting
Some foolish thing some little simple thing I’ve done
Cause I’m just a soul whose intentions are good
Even though the usually cautious Merkel took her fellow citizens on quite a ride, at long last she now articulates the legal boundaries of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which provides up to three years of temporary refuge.
She also states that only relatively few of those who arrived this past year meet the standards required to be granted asylum in Germany.
Merkel’s government has also finally resolved a practical rule of immigration that should have been articulated months earlier. For future refugee arrivals from Syrian refugee camps, Germany will give preference to accepting families with young children.
There are other reasons to explain Merkel’s turn. The right-wing AfD party has been rising in the polls to alarming levels, eating into the voter potential of both the CDU and the SPD.
To stop that trend, Merkel eventually came to the conclusion that she had to reverse course — and the SPD, her partner in the so-called grand coalition, grudgingly arrived at the same conclusion.
Making Merkel’s newfound “religion” reality will be anything but easy.
Germany’s administrative practice in the past has been to “tolerate” the continued presence of many people in the country even though their applications for asylum were rejected. Changing that practice will prove hard.
What Merkel is urgently trying to do is to manage expectations. First and foremost, that means to diminish the outlandish expectations, systematically and extremely cynically fed by the traffickers, that Germany will take in all new arrivals.
A course correction was also inevitable because her constant, mantra-like referral to a “European solution” on the refugee issue — while admirable in principle — never stood a chance to become reality. Middle-of-the-road voters arrived at the conclusion that the chancellor, widely known for her soberness and sense of realism, should have known better.
A sizable segment of her core voters felt increasingly alienated.
Voters also came to the silent conclusion that Merkel, in taking the stances she took on the refugee issue (for example, talking about tackling the economic inequities that are the root cause of the refugee crisis), was confused about what her daytime job was — and is. She acted splendidly — assuming she were secretary-general of the United Nations.
The major challenge — and true course reversal Merkel must accomplish — still remains on the agenda.
Bizarrely, the same people in the CDU who often as a form of practical Christian belief are extremely welcoming to refugees also remain adamantly opposed to an immigration law that would establish criteria for which economic refugees would be welcomed in the country.
The German debate thus shows policy preferences diametrically opposed to those in the United States and Canada. Those countries accept certain quantities of refugees, but only on a very limited basis.
In contrast, they are very keen to attract as many skilled economic migrants as the labor market and the future requirements of a productive U.S. or Canadian economy might warrant.
Merkel, who likes to talk about Germany’s future economic needs, but has done astonishingly little to improve the country’s productivity during her entire decade in office, still has to get her head around that issue.
Stephan Richter is the publisher and editor-in-chief of The Globalist. He also is the president of The Globalist Research Center. © The Globalist 2016