IN BERLIN they speak of “Plan B”; in Brussels the fear is of the U-turn. Whatever the term, the prediction is the same: that Angela Merkel is on the brink of reversing the generous policy towards asylum-seekers that saw more than a million of them reach Germany last year. For now, Mrs Merkel sticks to her well-worn line: Wir schaffen das (“We will handle this”). Over the past six months she has slowly assembled a hard-headed, coherent migration strategy. But each of its elements is starting to give way.
First, numbers. The winter weather has dented the refugee flows to Greece from Turkey, but not as quickly as hoped. Over 1,600 a day have reached Greece this month, a higher rate than last July when the crisis was already in full swing. Border controls erected along the migratory route since then complicate the journey, but determined migrants still make it to Germany. Wrong-footed by the explosion in arrivals last autumn Mrs Merkel’s government tightened asylum rules, but few were put off. A growing number of Moroccans and Algerians, hailing from poor but peaceful countries, are coming to Germany, exploiting the trail blazed by Syrians and Afghans. Meanwhile the howls from regional officials who must house and feed the arrivals grow ever louder: last week a mayor bussed 31 Syrians to the federal chancellery in Berlin, saying his small town could no longer cope.
To cut the numbers reaching Europe, Mrs Merkel has turned to realpolitik. German officials aim to strike deals with countries in the Maghreb and Asia to make it easier to return failed asylum-seekers, and are prepared to use development aid as a weapon. Their main hopes, though, lie in an “action plan” the EU cooked up with Turkey in October, which promised money and other prizes in exchange for efforts to stem the migrant flows. Mrs Merkel believes that Turkey can help by disrupting people-smuggling networks and stepping up coastal patrols. But, despite the incentives, there is little sign of Turkish action so far. Without it, the refugee numbers will start to climb again once spring arrives.
To deal with the influx Mrs Merkel has backed an EU plan to register asylum-seekers arriving in Italy and Greece and to relocate them around the club, with national quotas calculated in Brussels. A million asylum-seekers should be no great burden for a union of 500m people. But the relocation scheme has flopped too: many countries want nothing to do with refugees, and refugees have no interest in most countries. So the Germans are changing tack, seeking allies willing to help them resettle hundreds of thousands of Syrians directly from Turkey. France is among the countries prepared to take in the same number of resettled refugees it agreed to take under the relocation scheme. But this will work only if the illegal flows fall dramatically, which means the Turkey deal must kick into gear.
In the meantime, Germany is beginning the difficult work of integrating hundreds of thousands of newcomers. The new-year horrors of Cologne, when hundreds of women were sexually assaulted by marauding groups of men, many of them Muslim asylum-seekers, focused minds on cultural differences. But bringing refugees into the workforce, the main engine of integration, represents at least as big a challenge. The assumption that Germany’s tight labour market was tailor-made for job-hungry migrants has given way to the grim realisation that most are an ill fit for an economy mainly seeking highly skilled workers. The head of one business group reckons almost 80% of refugees have next to no skills at all.
Mrs Merkel is racing against time. Her Christian Democratic Union and its coalition partners are increasingly restive. Cabinet ministers have openly challenged the chancellor’s position. The anti-immigration Alternative for Germany party is notching up double-digit polling results for the first time. Refugees languish in supposedly temporary accommodation months after arriving in Germany. Mrs Merkel continues to insist that there can be no cap on the number of refugees Germany accepts, and the constitution agrees with her. But increasingly, reality does not.
Very well, alone
What if nothing works? Despite the pressure Mrs Merkel is unlikely to shut Germany’s borders, because she wants to preserve the EU’s passport-free Schengen zone. But other plans are being drawn up inside the chancellery, including a sealing of the Greece-Macedonia border across which most refugees travel to reach Germany. Once refugees see that Greece has become a dead end, says one German official, they will think twice about setting sail from Turkey. Other routes will no doubt emerge, perhaps across the Black Sea. But the plan might at least buy time.
Such schemes show how far Germany has travelled since its “welcome culture” lifted European liberals’ hearts last summer. Back then Mrs Merkel’s model presented an inspiring alternative to the small-minded xenophobia of leaders like Hungary’s Viktor Orban. Now, after the chaos and trauma of the past six months, Mr Orban feels vindicated and the chancellor looks increasingly isolated. Germany has tried to lead in Europe, but others will not follow. To Mrs Merkel’s immense frustration, other EU countries agree to policies like relocation and then ignore them. While German officials try to knit together the geopolitics of the crisis, from Iraq to Turkey and Russia, most other countries would prefer it simply to go away. As for the European Commission, which sometimes looks like the chancellor’s last ally, it has gamely advanced common policies but is too weak to enforce them. “The European dream is vanishing,” sighs one of its senior officials.
Mrs Merkel, to her credit, is desperate to keep it alive. But time is running out. Germany has perhaps two months to hope that the jigsaw pieces fall into place before the refugee flows pick up again, and each part of the job gets harder every day. Can Germany still handle this? We will continue to make the case, says a government official. “But nobody believes it.” -The Economist