Getting the EU onboard will be a Herculean task (Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

May 16, 2023   6 mins

Wir schaffen das! Who could forget Angela Merkel’s one-liner on August 31, 2015 — best translated as “Yes, we can!” — after she opened her country’s borders to hundreds of thousands of migrants making their way from Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere in the Middle East? In the liberal Anglophone press, Germany was practically re-branded as a humanitarian superpower overnight. It was as if, with this grand, risky gesture, Germany had finally atoned for the crimes of the past.

In 2023, Germany, like much of Europe, faces a massive new wave of refugees, but the widespread mood of certainty embodied by Wir schaffen das! has long since faded. Merkel’s successor, Olaf Scholz, says he will take unprecedented steps to limit immigration.

In those heady days of 2015, volunteers greeted trainloads of exhausted people at the Munich main station with food packages and applause. I too played a tiny part in Willkommenskultur. On a rainy evening in November of that year, via a chat group organised by volunteers, I picked up a Syrian in his early thirties called Mohammed from the throng of people outside Berlin’s overwhelmed refugee registration office, gave him a meal and bed for the night, then drove him back in the morning. We had no common language, but he showed me a photo of his wife and two kids back in Aleppo. I understood he was a car mechanic. I gave him my number, in case he needed anything, knowing he’d never call.

Many Germans did far more than me, hosting families for months and years. They helped out with bureaucracy and language issues. Eight years later, there are countless examples of how Syrians and people of other nationalities have settled successfully in Germany, from outstanding Syrian restaurants in Berlin, to young people who found tech jobs, to a village in the supposedly hostile East where the arrival of Syrian families meant the local school could stay open.

Then there were the dark chapters. Reports of violent crimes involving immigrants shook Willkommenskultur to the core: the 2016 truck attack against a Berlin Christmas market by an unsuccessful asylum applicant from Tunisia that killed 12; the sexual assault of dozens of women by a crowd of largely immigrant men in Cologne on New Year’s Eve in 2015. Nonetheless, despite the enormous strain on Germany’s health, welfare and educational systems, within a year or two there was a general sense that immigration was by and large under control again, not least thanks to Merkel’s shaky deal with Turkey, under which Erdoğan agreed to take back “irregular” migrants who had reached Greece islands from Turkey in exchange for billions of euros.

Today, by contrast, Merkel’s deal with Turkey could crumble if Erdoğan’s challenger Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu wins the second round of the country’s presidential election. He’s vowed to send millions of Syrians back to Syria, though some might risk entering Europe. Meanwhile, a million Ukrainian refugees fleeing the war have settled in Germany. Perhaps due to an inner European solidarity, Ukrainians receive preferential retreat and are immediately granted the right to work and the same welfare benefits as Germans. At the same time, the number of refugees and asylum seekers from elsewhere has been rising steadily too, people from Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Georgia, Moldova and many other places. This year, 300,000 non-Ukrainian migrants are expected to apply for asylum in Germany, according to an estimate by the CDU’s parliamentary group.

And with these rising figures, new tensions have started to simmer. At a school in Ludwigshafen where 98% of children come from immigrant families, a third of pupils had to repeat their first year because of a lack of basic German skills. There have also been reports of racist violence, such as when, last week, a group of largely immigrant pupils attending a maths camp in a village in the former East was attacked by local children shouting racist insults. The pupils were evacuated under police protection. Refugee homes housing Ukrainians have also been attacked in the East, where scepticism about support for Ukraine runs high. In the Eastern states of Saxony and Thuringia, the anti-immigration Alternative fĂŒr Deutschland leads the opinion polls, with 28% support — placing more pressure on the political mainstream to stem immigration.

Faced with this crisis, Chancellor Scholz’s “traffic light” coalition of Social Democrats, Greens and Liberals seems to have got the memo. At a “refugee summit” last week, he committed to an additional €1 billion to be spent this year on housing, integration and digitalisation measures to help speed up the asylum application process. Even in 2023, most immigration paperwork (and much of the rest of the German bureaucratic apparatus) is processed on paper. That, combined with severe labour shortages on all levels of administration, means applications can take two years. And asylum-seekers have the right to appeal decisions. Some 300,000 people have received deportation notices but also given temporary Duldung or “toleration” status due to extenuating humanitarian or personal circumstances. A Duldung usually means you can work — which means many find a job and then get deported anyway, to the chagrin of German firms struggling from labour shortages.

Scholz, however, appears to have woken up to the fact that cities actually want a reduction of the flow of people into Germany. He has, for instance, promised more spot checks at Germany’s borders. He spoke about beefing up “infrastructure” at the outer EU border, meaning more fences, more money for the border agency Frontex, more surveillance drones. He wants to expand the list of countries deemed safe, meaning their citizens will be excluded from asylum. EU candidates Moldova and Georgia are expected to be added next.

Scholz also favours two policies the European Commission and other member states have been talking about for years. The first is fast-track asylum processing at the point that migrants enter the EU, in places like Malta and Lampedusa. Rejected applicants could be returned to the countries they had come from.

This raises the spectre of the human rights nightmare of returning immigrants back to lawless nations such as Libya — but a second policy is supposed to prevent such scenarios: a mesh of treaties between the EU and countries in Africa and the Middle East which would require those countries to take back unsuccessful asylum applicants while at the same time opening up legal avenues to a certain amount of labour immigration into Europe. The hope is that this people would apply in their home countries instead of risking a dangerous crossing of the Mediterranean, which in turn could provide the labour — skilled and unskilled — required by an ageing society with a low birth rate, where millions of baby boomers are about to retire. Spain already has a similar agreement with Morocco, but getting all of the EU onboard will be a Herculean task.

Strangely, in Germany, major political shifts often occur under the leadership of parties ideologically opposed to those shifts. The centre-left SPD cut welfare in the Nineties. Same-sex marriage and the country’s first minimum wage happened under Merkel. Now the SPD, with their Green and Liberal partners, could herald in an era of stricter immigration rules. These are early days, though. The Greens will likely throw a spanner in the works or at least do what they can to ensure a path for genuine asylum-seekers who face persecution due to their politics and or sexual identity.

It’s unlikely, then, that Germany will turn into a giant Denmark, where even a Social Democrat-led government is gunning for zero asylum-seekers. Germany says it won’t compete in a race to the bottom when it comes to cutting benefits for refugees as a deterrent. It’s no secret that officials from Greece to Switzerland encourage migrants to travel on to Germany, a practice that conflicts with the Dublin Regulation, under which asylum applicants are supposed to apply in the first EU country they set foot in, but 2015 proved that Dublin was unworkable once and for all. Under a new Europe-wide deal, Germany hopes for a more distribution of asylum-seekers and refugees across the continent — probably pie in the sky.

Yet whatever happens in the coming months, Scholz’s new immigration course has already shifted the parameters of what a mainstream politician can say. Former health minister and immigration hardliner Jens Spahn of the CDU, who memorably complained about the pressing cultural issue of embarrassed Arab men showering in their underwear at his gym, broke a taboo on a chat show last week. Perhaps Germany, he said, needed to rethink the right to political asylum anchored in its 1949 constitution, which is outdated because it was drafted in response to the massive population movements in Europe following the war. Since Germany was responsible for the vast human misery of the war, so went the thinking, it should take a generous stance towards the oppressed and persecuted fleeing dictatorships across Europe and the world. Eighty years later, the burden of war guilt could be lifting — and with it, the spirit of Wir schaffen das! is taking on a whole new meaning.

Maurice Frank co-founded the English magazine Exberliner and now co-writes the newsletter 20 Percent Berlin.