A bimonthly magazine on international affairs, edited in Germany's capital

A Country Without a Plan

Germans are becoming impatient with the way Chancellor Angela Merkel is approaching the refugee crisis.
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Angela Merkel is right when she says that “isolation and inaction” are no solution to the refugee crisis. But then what is? Our columnist went to a refugee camp in Erding, Bavaria, to find out.

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© REUTERS/Michael Dalder

Of the many cultural no-nos I’ve encountered while living in Germany, one of the most frowned-upon – right up there with being late – is not having a plan. As a typical Irishman, raised to believe a plan is always nice but not always essential, it was a cultural shock to learn that not having a plan here ranks somewhere between carelessness and negligence.

Imagine, then, the opprobrium Angela Merkel has to endure these days as the number of refugees arriving in Germany nudges one million and beyond.

Europe is experiencing a mass migration wave of historic, biblical proportions, and most of the variables lie beyond the chancellor’s control. But people still want a plan. Her “We’ll manage this” remark last August carried the public mood for about a month; but it was a statement of intent, not a plan, and, as the temperature drops, so, too, does the public mood towards asylum seekers.

Pegida, the anti-Islam group centered in Dresden, has experienced a revival despite revealing its true far-right face. The hard right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party is toughening up its asylum rhetoric, too, as are Merkel’s Christian Social Union (CSU) allies in the southern state of Bavaria. On the front lines of the Balkan route, Bavaria has accepted 500,000 people since September.

With no end in sight, they want a plan. Thus asylum was the focus of last week’s CSU party conference. Delegates listened unimpressed as Chancellor Merkel thanked Bavaria for its efforts and promised tougher regulations for new arrivals. But she stood her ground and refused their demands for a cap on migrant numbers, saying Germany would continue to provide protection and shelter to those in need.

“Isolation and inaction are no solution in the 21st century,” she said, forced later to stand in stony-faced silence alongside CSU leader Horst Seehofer as he demanded a defined refugee limit. “I can only tell you that we will be talking about this again, and I hope that we will come to an understanding,” he said.

As the first frost arrived this week, the chilly atmosphere in Germany’s ruling center-right alliance is indicative of a wider problem – and a troubling misunderstanding – in Germany’s asylum debate. That was what I learned last week in Erding, a Bavarian market town of 36,000 people famed worldwide for its Erdinger beer.

Welcome to the Waiting Room

Already home to 1,700 asylum-seekers, Erding is now home to a new Warteraum (“Waiting Room”) overflow facility on a disused military airfield. Half-cylindrical hangers that once housed warplanes have now been refitted to house those fleeing war. The Erding camp has the capacity for up to 5,000 people, and currently has 1,200 people arriving and leaving every 24 hours. Around 40 percent are from Syria, 20 percent each come from Afghanistan and Eritrea, and the rest are from other countries.

“We are here to give breathing space for politicians to decide what happens next,” said Heiko Werner, a camp set-up expert for Germany’s federal office for migration and refugees. A veteran of war zones around the world, Werner speaks highly of Angela Merkel as one of Germany’s few politicians to grasp the scale of what is going on: a mass movement of people in a few months, on a scale that once took centuries.

He credits her “we’ll manage this” mantra for ensuring that Germany’s byzantine bureaucracy of federal, state and local government pulled together, and in the same direction, in recent months. But Erding camp officials worry about the future, saying German politicians will eventually have to make one of two decisions. “Either they say this massive change can only be managed, in which case they have to prepare people here to cope with change,” said one official. “Or they start erecting barriers on Europe’s borders and accept the ugly consequences – and images – that will follow.”

Down the road in Erding, people share this concern. In Erdinger Bräustüberl, home of the famous beer, local man Martin Kraus gave a resigned sigh over his Weisswurst lunch. The 35 year-old friend of a friend is very clued in politically, but, after listening to all the arguments on asylum seekers, he believes Germany is trapped.

“We’ve done ourselves proud organizing camps and welcoming people, but no one can say what happens next – how are we going to manage this in the future?” he asks.

At the cafe in the train station I watch exhausted, dusty Syrian families with wailing babies buy tickets to Munich and beyond. Though registered temporarily in Erding, no one can prevent them vanishing from here. Sitting beside me, a local woman in her late 50s who’d rather not be named says it’s the same picture every day.

A former hotel chambermaid, she volunteers at a home for around 70 unaccompanied minors, but says even the most enthusiastic volunteers are now starting to drop off.

Young men in the home are aggressive and disrespectful towards women helpers, she says, and around five minors vanish each night. No one has a plan or an overview of what’s going on. “We’re working as best we can, but we’re so frustrated,” she said. “No politician can tell us what the plan is. We feel we’re tilting at windmills.”

Domestic Dilemma

Leaving Erding, two challenges loom large in my mind. The first is the sheer scale of the migration wave. The second is a domestic dilemma over how to respond.

Angela Merkel is careful to resist artificial caps on migration, knowing that she is facing a force of nature that, as King Canute learned with the tide, could well drown her. Yet CSU leader Horst Seehofer has a point, too, in warning that, even if inward migration cannot be limited, public goodwill to master this challenge is limited, and will eventually be exhausted. Germany urgently needs to define what it wants in this historic crisis, he said, “in the national interest.”

Such a statement would be self-evident in any other European country, but Germany’s historical taboo toward nationalism has left politicians paralyzed now. Concern that people will confuse national interest with primitive nationalism means that people would rather tip-toe around such questions rather than risk being banished, unfairly, to the radioactive far-right corner.

But in Erding and elsewhere, people are fuming, in private and in silence. For how much longer? They want a plan – or at least an honest debate over what can be planned and what cannot. Politicians who fail to address their fair-minded concerns will eventually lose them to far-right groups that offer simple answers to this complex challenge.

Perhaps I’ve lived in Germany too long, but surely having even an incomplete plan is preferable to having none.