Germany prioritises solidarity on refugees - and isn't willing to wait for others to agree

The record number of migrants reaching Germany, even before Chancellor Angela Merkel’s welcoming message, has triggered a change in policy. Before 2015, Berlin was reluctant to see EU quota systems for refugees, as it was believed this would raise the number of arrivals in the country. However, when the Italian government repeatedly called for European solidarity on the refugee situation in recent months, the German response was supportive. Berlin would have favoured binding quotas in light of the growing numbers coming to Germany, but did not throw its weight around to push this through.

More than 250,000 people applied for asylum in Germany between January and August this year; 50,000 more than in the whole of 2014, and about as many as in 1991, when Yugoslavia was breaking apart. However, 438,000 sought asylum in Germany in 1992, and 322,000 in 1993. The current inflow thus has a precedent, which may have been the reason for Merkel’s initial confidence that Germany would be able to manage the situation.

Despite the voluntary work of citizens to support the stream of refugees arriving in Germany by train, bus or on foot, the burden on reception centres, municipalities and regional administrations quickly became obvious. Policymakers and planners had underestimated the size and speed of the migration flow to Germany – an unintended consequence of German soft power, which had never been as manifest as in the first three weeks of September 2015. In the 20 days following the chancellor’s message, 135,000 refugees arrived in Bavaria.

Driven by these numbers, the federal government now insisted on more robust decisions on relocation and support at the European level. Germany publicly endorsed the Commission’s proposals and sought to line up support, actively reaching out to France, as well as to Spain and Poland in particular. Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier made an additional effort to win support from the Visegrad group (Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary). Before the meeting of the Ministerial Council on 22 September, Berlin repeatedly stressed the wish to reach consensus, but had prepared to push the proposal dossier by qualified majority voting (QMV) should consensus not be reached. Berlin was all the more determined to use QMV since the binding nature of the relocation mechanism had already been watered down, and provisions introduced to allow member states to fall short on taking their share of refugees in certain circumstances. Not to come to an agreement would have meant pushing the issue up to the level of the European Council, which would have complicated matters further.

Still, the European response remains insufficient from Germany’s point of view. Many in Berlin doubt that relocation under the new scheme will become effective immediately and according to the numbers agreed. The consensus in principle on a list of “safe” countries of origin needs to be followed up to become operative. Its main function is to limit the access of West Balkan migrants to member state asylum schemes to a much smaller number of individual cases. In Germany’s view this will require introducing quotas for migrants from the West Balkans. Germany is preparing such a scheme, and would welcome a coordinated EU approach. Quick progress needs to be made in establishing “hotspots” in EU border states to ensure the full registration of new arrivals. In a 24 September summit between the federal government and the governments of the German Länder, or states, the federal authorities pledged massive financial support to the states and municipalities. This year, the federal government will provide €2 billion for refugee programmes to be doubled to €4 billion in 2016, based on an estimated 800,000 refugee arrivals annually.

Against these numbers, Berlin’s sensitivity to complaints from some capitals about the application of QMV has been rather low. In her statement to Parliament following the 23 September informal summit, Angela Merkel did not say a word about national interests overriding majority rule. Instead, she described the EU as a community of values, law and responsibility. Germany is claiming solidarity as a constituent part of the European project, and evidently is not willing to wait for everyone to share that view.

Read more on: View from the Capitals, Human Rights

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.