Dealing with Minsk: German attitudes harden
Even the German newspapers that were most welcoming of refugees in 2015 are more hesitant this time around.
How do Germans see the migrant crisis on the border between Poland and Belarus and what is Berlin likely to do to try and resolve the situation? That’s the question I’m asking this Friday.
2G or not 2G?
First, a brief comment on the other unavoidable subject of the week. The government announced plans today to bring in ‘2G plus’ for indoor events. That basically means that only vaccinated and recovered people can enter, but that they also need to provide a negative test result.
As you might expect, a very emotional debate has been raging over whether 2G rules are a form of mandatory vaccines “through the back door” and over whether they really help to bring down infections.
The same old camps have formed, with SPD man Karl Lauterbach being the loudest advocate of 2G. The main argument here seems to be that 2G would motivate people to get vaccinated rather than forfeit their right to partake on public life.
The country’s most influential virologist, Christian Drosten, made a dramatic intervention this week, saying that 2G “isn’t enough” and that a new shutdown is unavoidable. If the government doesn’t act now, a further 100,000 people will die with the disease, he predicted. Drosten and other virologists have raised concerns that 2G would simply push unvaccinated people into meeting at home, thus doing little to tackle the spread of infection.
In the opposing camp, an interesting argument was put forward today by Germany’s most prominent sceptic of the universal vaccine programme.
Sahra Wagenknecht, the former Bundestag leader of Die Linke, wrote a long column for Die Welt newspaper saying that the focus on the unvaccinated was a distraction.
I’ve written at length about Wagenknecht before. Although she is now a marginal figure in the Bundestag, she is one of the most influential politicians among the wider German public.
It would be too crude to call Wagenknecht an anti-vaxxer. She has not been vaccinated because, as a healthy 52 year old, she says that she can’t tell what long-term consequences the mRNA vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna could have. At the same time, she says she is glad that her 81-year-old husband, former Finance Minister Oskar Lafontaine, has had the opportunity to be vaccinated.
She argues that it is misleading and antagonistic to claim that Germany is going through a “pandemic of the unvaccinated” due to the fact that over a third of hospitalizations are of patients who have been fully vaccinated. Meanwhile, she states that international comparisons show that a higher vaccine quota doesn’t necessarily slow down the spread of the virus.
For Wagenknecht, the “appalling” focus on the unvaccinated is a deliberate distraction from the true scandal:
“There are fewer hospitals, even fewer full-time nurses and thousands fewer intensive care beds in Germany today than a year ago. Not doing anything about this has probably been the biggest of the many failures that the government has been guilty of during the Corona period. According to a study by [trade union] Verdi, 300,000 nurses had already fled their profession before Corona because of lousy working conditions and poor pay. The number now is likely to be much higher.”
What to do about Belarus?
A fascinating discussion has been bubbling away this week about how to deal with Belarussian dictator Alexander Lukashenko and his new tactic of sending refugees to his EU borders to try and create a new migrant crisis.
Before the great battle of the vaccinated vs. the unvaccinated, the civil war in Germany was between the ‘refugees welcome’ camp and the ‘refugees go home’ camp. There is more than a little crossover between these two seemingly unrelated themes - one could argue that the old armies are simply fighting the same war under new banners.
You won’t be surprised to hear that Amnesty International Deutschland have put all the blame for the crisis on the government in Poland, blaming Warsaw for breaches of the human rights of the refugees trying to cross the border. “Most of the people stranded in the border area come from crisis regions such as Syria, Afghanistan or Iraq. Those who need international protection must now be allowed to apply for it,” they say.
On the other hand, the Alternative for Germany (AfD) say that Germany’s generous welfare system is the real issue, as it is pulling people towards the country. “We must end all incentives for migration to Germany by asylum seekers and support every measure that helps to the protect the borders," AfD politician Stephan Brandner says.
It goes without saying that the reality is a whole lot more complicated. How does Germany and the EU ensure that it doesn’t end up being blackmailed by a dictator while also upholding the human rights standards that it holds so dear?
Lukashenko, a dictator who has been in power since the early 1990s, has been seething ever since the European parliament declared him a persona non grata in the wake of a fixed presidential election last year and agreed sanctions against top officials in his regime.
In May of this year, Lukashenko’s regime ordered the grounding of a Ryanair flight that was using Belarussian airspace and which was carrying an opposition activist. The activist was taken from the plane and swiftly jailed.
The EU responded with new sanctions and a ban on airlines from the EU using Belarussian airspace.
Since the summer, Belarus has been encouraging migrants from Africa and the Middle East to travel to Minsk, promising that they can gain easy access to the EU from there, with most wanting to travel on to Germany. There have been reports of Belarussian border guards beating migrants at the border if they don’t cross over into the EU at common borders to Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland.
It is unclear how many migrants are currently in Belarus.
What has the German response been?
Deniz Yücel, a journalist at Die Welt, argues that by blocking the migrants from entering the EU, the bloc is playing into Lukashenko’s hands and making itself vulnerable to similar attempts at blackmail in the future.
“The truth is that this weapon [sending migrants to the border] would not be a weapon if Europe did not fall into such a panic over a few thousand migrants or become unduly scared that this will benefit parties that have made fomenting resentment their livelihood,” Yücel writes.
For Yücel, the way to defeat Lukashenko is simple: stick to European values and his weapon becomes a dud. After all, the continent is more than capable of absorbing the small number of people Belarus is trying to use to gain concessions from Brussels.
Others fear that taking in the migrants would only lead Lukashenko to up the pressure by trafficking more people to the border and thus creating conditions like those seen in 2015.
Proponents of this more hawkish view are of the opinion that only a tough escalation of sanctions can show Lukashenko that these tactics are doomed to fail.
“The EU can only overcome this crisis if it takes clear, swift and united action against Lukashenko,” writes Michael Thumann of Die Zeit newspaper.
Thumann also warns against playing the dictator’s game by placing too much blame for the current situation on Poland. “Anyone who characterizes the border crisis in such a distorted way is echoing the dictator’s narrative” he says.
In its leader article, Der Spiegel tries to build a bridge between doves and hawks. It calls for Germany to take in the migrants who are currently camped at the border. But it adds that:
“There is a justified concern that thousands, or tens of thousands of people will understand this humanitarian gesture as a signal to also set out on their journey. Among them would presumably be many who would have little chance of being recognized as asylum seekers.”
The magazine goes on to argue for the EU giving money to Poland and other countries to build fences on their external borders:
“Anyone who wants to control immigration needs secure borders. There are political majorities in Germany and many European countries for a regulated immigration policy based on economic and humane criteria. Not so for open borders. Fences are not a contradiction to a humane immigration policy, they are necessary for it”.
The political response thus far has shown no signs that Germany is not even mildly interested in a repeat of 2015, when it was widely praised for taking in over a million refugees.
Foreign Minister Heiko Maas on Friday announced that the EU would target new sanctions against Belarussian individuals involved in the transport of migrants, and could also target airlines that take them as passengers.
“All airlines must be aware that if they make themselves accomplices to criminal human trafficking, they will have to prepare for the consequences,” Maas said.
Chancellor-in-waiting Olaf Scholz said he stood with Poland and threatened a response against Minsk of “the utmost toughness.”
There is no clearer signal of how much German attitudes to political asylum have hardened since 2015 than that Der Spiegel - once a vocal supporter of open borders - is now calling for barbed wire on the EU’s external frontiers.
Maas’ response was also instructive. He was a member of the government when Germany opened its borders in 2015. At the time he was an impassioned proponent of giving refugees a new home, despite evidence that the migrants back then were tools in Turkish autocrat Erdogan’s foreign policy. His new tough talk makes clear that Germany won’t let autocrats have the upper hand over Europe by exploiting this soft skin on the EU’s underbelly.
Even if no one will say it out loud there is a general agreement that the disorderly entry of migrants in 2015 must never be repeated. While there is still pride over the role Germany played, the price was billions of euros in payments to Ankara plus heightened terror threats at home.
The consensus is that Germany now needs a realistic and orderly migration policy, one that assesses people depending on their needs and the needs of the country - preferably long before they reach the EU’s borders.