For Kohl, the history of Germany and its central position in Europe meant that a country should never pursue national greatness as an end in itself. In his opinion, a country with the largest number of neighbors than any other on the continent should not impose its opinion. Rather, it should support the idea of Europe, in which all countries, large and small, feel equally safe.
However, as former Swedish Prime Minister Karl Bild writes in his article on Project Syndicate, since the beginning of the refugee crisis in the fall of 2015, Kohl’s vision of Europe has been criticized. While Chancellor Angela Merkel continued to insist on a joint migration and refugee policy within the European Union, an increasing chorus of votes in Germany favors unilateral actions that are likely to be independent of other EU member states.
Former Prime Minister of Sweden Karl Bild
“At first glance, the protracted debate in Germany today is to deny asylum seekers who have already been registered in other EU countries, something that the Federal Minister of the Interior Horst Seehofer from the Christian Social Union (CSU) has repeatedly advocated. But at a deeper level for Germany, the question is whether it should go alone or continue to search for pan-European solutions.
In this new age of identity politics, the dispute over immigration has become a battle for the German spirit. Last September, Alternative for Germany (AdG) became the first extreme right-wing party to join the German Bundestag after the 1960s. Then, after the formation of the current broad coalition government, AdG became the main opposition party. And now, on the eve of the regional elections in Bavaria in October this year, she pushes CSU further to the right.
These events in Germany are in line with trends in Europe, where nationalist and populist parties have achieved electoral success by abandoning decisions at the EU level and calling for the closure of borders. In Italy, the Nationalist League Party seems to set the tone for decisions in its new ruling coalition with the populist Five Star Movement. And in Austria, the far-right “Freedom Party” as a member of the ruling coalition exerts its influence on migration policy.
If anyone listens to the rhetoric of these parties, they might think that refugees and migrants arrive in Europe without hindrance. But, despite the fact that the Balkans became a highway for asylum seekers who fled from Syria to Germany and Sweden in 2015 and 2016, this route was actually closed when Turkey agreed to accept refugees in exchange for EU financial assistance. Although the refugee situation in the Central Mediterranean continues to raise high profile headlines, the number of immigrants from North Africa has fallen sharply over the past year.
However, for Europe, immigration remains an acute problem due to the shock of the initial refugee crisis, which is still reflected in the minds of voters. Politics is based on perception, not on bare numbers. And populist and nationalist parties managed to portray a picture of besieged Europe.
In the current political context, if Germany returns refugees to Austria, Austria will almost certainly send them back to Italy. But this will bring the EU back to the same situation it was in when the asylum seekers were not registered upon arrival in Italy and when it was even more difficult to return them back to other borders. Inevitably, the situation will result in an explosive disorder when EU member states are set against each other with populists at the head of the table.
For comparison, Germany Kohl would consider the pan-European nature of its policy and formulate it accordingly. She would simply not shift her national concerns to her smaller neighbors, as she would recognize that the security of her neighbors is synonymous with her own security.
Nationalist attacks on Kohl’s vision could have consequences that go far beyond the debate on immigration. At stake is not only Germany’s role in Europe, but also the future of European integration. Germany, which abandons Kohl’s legacy, would suddenly become a source of deep uncertainty, and not a bastion of stability in the center of Europe. Given that the West is already being attacked by leaders such as Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Donald Trump, this is the last thing Europe needs.
Of course, the current crisis is likely to be resolved through a number of imperfect compromises – both at the EU level and within the ruling coalition of Germany. After all, this is how the EU often works, as was the case with the Greek sovereign debt crisis.
It is unlikely that the problem will end there. German uncertainty about Kohl’s legacy is a trend that is greater than any other problem. But how the debate on refugee issues takes place in the coming weeks will tell a lot about the future direction of Germany – and the future of Europe as a whole. ”