Merkel, the Refugee Crisis, and German Hegemony

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In late 2015, the German government made a series of fateful pledges as thousands of asylum seekers were traveling through Europe. It promised not to turn away any Syrian refugees who reached its borders, while Chancellor Angela Merkel also refused to set an upper limit for the number of asylum seekers that Germany could take in.[i] Merkel’s critics accuse her of exacerbating the refugee crisis by encouraging countless migrants to enter Europe in the hope of gaining eventual asylum in Germany.[ii] Yet reality is far more complicated. The government’s actions did little to increase actual sea crossings. Instead, their immediate impact was primarily on the vast numbers of migrants already present in Hungary and the Balkan region.[iii] Refugees would, in an ideal world, travel through humanitarian corridors rather than pursuing perilous sea journeys.[iv] However, politics must focus on the present rather than dwelling on past errors, and, in late 2015, Europe needed to find a way of dealing with the hundreds of thousands of migrants who had already arrived on its shores. Germany ultimately led the continent’s response to the crisis, becoming a de facto hegemon. Merkel’s inner circle justified its decisions on humanitarian grounds.[v] They could not, after all, allow refugees to freeze to death as the European winter arrived. Still, political considerations were also extremely important.[vi]

The German government had few options. A harsh response to mass migration, with nationwide searches to find and deport all those without legal status could have amounted to a de facto criminalization of every ethnic minority in Germany–treating them all as illegal immigrants until proven innocent. Such an atmosphere would have undoubtedly shattered social cohesion. The Merkel government preferred to encourage all irregular migrants to register as refugees, giving them high hopes of asylum and preventing the widespread suspicion that a harsher policy might have inspired. Many more would have dropped off the government’s radar and disappeared if they had no incentives to register. Similarly, closing all borders for more than a very short period was unthinkable since Germany’s economy benefits immensely from intra-European and international trade.[vii] Any new fences and border crossings would soon have needed to come down to restart commerce, and there is little reason to expect that migrant flows would not have restarted as well. Meanwhile, deporting all who were stuck at border crossings would have been nigh-impossible, as digitally-connected migrants could simply have fled camp closures. From a purely practical perspective, the German government’s policy of ordered welcome was the most realistic of the options available as the crisis unfolded.

Outside German borders, the refugee crisis has been blamed for the rise of European populism continent-wide.[viii] This is, to a large extent, true, but populism would have made even greater gains in a world in which unregistered migrants set up makeshift border camps, hid from authorities, and resorted to criminality for survival. Deporting failed asylum seekers would likewise be far harder if migrants were forced to live an irregular existence rather than registering with the state. These unintended consequences could easily have inspired an even more powerful right-wing backlash than did the German government’s more sensible approach.

Moreover, the migrant crisis could, in many ways, have paralyzed EU institutions. Many commentators feared that the Schengen open border system was on the verge of collapse if irregular migrant flows continued.[ix] Such situations often necessitate hegemonic interventions, with great powers stepping in to stabilize threatened institutions. Germany’s behavior was no exception to this rule. It had, as the EU’s largest economic power, benefitted immensely from cross-border trade and a stable Europe. The hegemon’s success is often deeply contingent on the system’s success–so much so that it will make unilateral moves and bear large costs in order to maintain stability. In Germany’s case, this meant bearing the economic and political costs of accepting large numbers of refugees.[x] The alternative–closed borders, large numbers of irregular migrants crossing the continent, and a Europe in constant tension–would have proven far more problematic.

Still, the concept of European hegemony is a complicated one. There is no single overwhelmingly dominant European power; the hegemon tends to emerge on an ad-hoc basis. That said, Berlin’s economic clout had already allowed it to lead the response to the Eurozone economic crisis. In 2015, as well, Germany was in an ideal position to step up: its economy was strong and its citizens comparatively willing to accept large numbers of asylum seekers.[xi] Germany also had much more experience integrating refugees, having taken in over half of all asylum seekers resettled in the EU in the early 1990s.[xii] Other states, most notably Italy and Greece, were far less able to cope given their economic and political turbulence. Finally, many refugees were already trying to get to Germany, rather than registering–let alone settling–in their first EU country of arrival. Having them file their applications within German borders, even if they were to be moved or deported thereafter, was the best short-term solution given these realities.

Several later actions confirm Merkel’s system-stabilizing goals. Germany instituted temporary border controls soon after making its crucial refugee pledges, but did so only to control, rather than block, migrant flows.[xiii] Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party has likewise taken an ever-tougher line on arrival, deportation, and integration policies. Germany also led efforts to finance offshore refugee centers, bolster the EU’s external borders, and sign an agreement with Turkey that drastically limited arrivals in Europe. Such pragmatic hedging demonstrates the Merkel administration’s intent to restore some continental stability, threatened as it was by massive migration.

Still, few states have acknowledged or shown gratitude for Germany’s leadership during the refugee crisis. Hegemonic intervention, while sometimes necessary, is rarely celebrated. In this case, it also clashes with some of the EU’s fundamental principles–the union should, after all, be an alliance of equals. Few Europhile policymakers are ready to admit that common European solutions failed and that hegemonic actions were needed. Meanwhile, criticizing Germany’s migration policies has proved politically beneficial for leaders such as Hungary’s Viktor Orban.[xiv] Criticism of Germany’s boldness did not only come from abroad: few German voters seem particularly keen on the idea of hegemony or the that of their country bearing Europe’s burdens.[xv] Merkel’s CDU party lost plenty of political backing in late 2016, with citizens divided over its refugee policies. Punishing as the present may be, history will likely prove kinder to the Merkel government: its actions probably saved Europe from a much deeper descent into chaos.

About the Author

Łukasz Antoni Król is a political scientist and independent researcher. A graduate of the Universities of St. Andrews and Cambridge, he now focuses on topics such as European affairs, journalism, and migration.

[i]        “Germany Suspends ‘Dublin Rules’ for Syrians.” Deutsche Welle, August 25, 2015.

[ii]       Steven Woolfe. “Merkel’s Welcome of Migrants Is a Colossal, Historic Mistake for the European Union.” Huffpost Politics | United Kingdom, September 21, 2016.

[iii]      German weekly Die Zeit points out that “It could very well be that Merkel’s actions later motivated many refugees to continue onwards to Germany. But those who arrived in Hungary in September hadn’t just recently left their homelands. They had already been on the road for some time. As such, the data from the Balkan Route shows that Merkel did not intensify the wave of refugees.”
Philip Faigle, Karsten Polke-Majewski, and Sascha Venohr. “Refugees: It Really Wasn’t Merkel.” ZEIT Online, November 10, 2016.

[iv]      Economist Paul Collier, a strong critic of Merkel’s refugee policy, expands on this in significant depth. 
Paul Collier. “Refugee Economics.” Milken Institute Review, May 2, 2016. 

Still, his arguments only work if we assume that Merkel’s actions either led to many more sea crossings or that those already on European soil could have been managed differently; claims I dispute within this op-ed.

[v]       Georg Blume, et al. “The Night Germany Lost Control.” ZEIT Online, August 30, 2016.

[vi]      This is not a new thesis; it was put forward by several other scholars, perhaps most eloquently by Benner. George Soros also alluded to it in a recent interview

Benner, Thorsten. “Europe’s Lonely Liberal Hegemon.” POLITICO Europe, March 2, 2016. George Soros and Gregor Peter Schmitz. “The EU Is on the Verge of Collapse – an Interview.” The New York Review of Books, February 11, 2016.

[vii]     Michael Böhmer, Jan Limbers, Ante Pivac, and Heidrun Weinelt. “Departure from the Schengen Agreement: Macroeconomic Impacts on Germany and the Countries of the European Union.” Bertelsmann Stiftung, 2016. Guntram B. Wolff “The Economic Consequences of Schengen.” Wirtschaftswoche, February 2, 2016.

[viii]    Michael Bröning. “The Rise of Populism in Europe.” Foreign Affairs, June 3, 2016.

[ix]      “The Economist Explains: Why the Schengen Agreement Might Be under Threat.” The Economist, August 24, 2015. Note that other policymakers argued that Schengen was similarly close to collapse in Jan 2016, several months after the German government’s fateful decisions. Berlin’s openness might have alleviated the refugee crisis but certainly did not put a final stop to it.

Rainer Buergin. “Schaeuble Warns Schengen Near Collapse as EU Bickers on Refugees.” Bloomberg, January 15, 2016.

[x]       Patrick Donahue. “Merkel’s Refugee Policy Stalls as Poll Ratings Fail to Rebound.” Bloomberg, June 17, 2016.

[xi]      This idea was put forward quite effectively by Thorsten Benner.

Thorsten Benner. “Europe’s Lonely Liberal Hegemon.” POLITICO Europe, March 2, 2016. For a survey that analyses German support for Merkel’s refugee policy, see:

Mehrheit Ist Mit Flüchtlingspolitik Einverstanden.” Spiegel Online, September 11, 2015.

[xii]     Phillip Connor. “Asylum Seeker Destinations: Germany Again Europe’s Leading Destination.” Pew Research Center, August 2, 2016.

[xiii]    Migrant Crisis: Germany Starts Temporary Border Controls.” BBC News, September 14, 2015.

[xiv]    Andrew Byrne. “Viktor Orban Sees Refugee Vote as Way to Jolt the EU.” Financial Times, September 29, 2016.

[xv]     Zanny Minton Beddoes. “Europe’s Reluctant Hegemon.” The Economist, June 13, 2013.


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