By Mathew D. Rose, a freelance writer in Berlin
It is a visit most Germans would like to forget – quickly. Their Chancellor Angela Merkel travelled to Turkey last Saturday, dropped in at what is termed a “sanitised” refugee camp for a well-orchestrated public relations exercise, and then held a press conference, effusing over Turkey’s exemplary treatment of refugees. It was “Brown Nose Tour The Second” to Turkey for Ms Merkel (the last in October, just before Turkish elections, in a veiled endorsement of Turkey’s dictator Recip Erdogan in return for a deal to stop the flow of refugees from Turkey to Greece).
This spectacle was much more than a display of hypocrisy. Ms Merkel’s newest kowtow to Erdogan, following her recent decision to raise charges against the German satirist Jan Böhmermann for libelling Erdogan, demonstrated to the German people that they are not the generous, enlightened people they thought they were and the European Union has nothing to do with Beethoven’s ode of joy, its unofficial anthem. Still Ms Merkel hopes her brown nose may yet revive her failing political fortune.
Ms Merkel has every reason to be thankful to Erdogan. Since the two completed their deal on 20 March the number of refugees crossing from Turkey has steadily declined. In the past five weeks a mere 113 refugees have purportedly been transferred from Turkey to the EU. That is just over 20 per week.
Ms Merkel’s visit is however just one element in a vastly larger development. It is just eight months ago that the Germans were celebrating their Willkommenskultur, solidarity with refugees fleeing wars in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. At the forefront was Ms Merkel, nicking Barack Obama’s 2008 election motto “Yes we can!” (Wir schaffen das). Currently Willkommenskultur is being redefined in Germany: Bringing Arab and African dictators and war criminals out of the cold to support the EU’s anti-refugee policy.
The motivation for this generous gesture by Germany’s Chancellor and the German government is to dump Willkommenskultur I. Willkommenskultur II will furnish authoritarian leaders and warlords with cash, weapons, equipment to secure borders and other assistance to keep refugees from reaching Europe as well as repatriating those that manage to survive the journey and enter EU territory. This has become an integral aspect of Ms Merkel’s present policy of closing EU borders and deportation.
Ms Merkel’s goal is “to regulate and control the stream of refugees from Libya to Italy as has been done in Turkey”, she recently announced, “We are currently trying to arrange a similar ‘cooperation’ with Libya.” Libya however is not only a warzone and failed state; it does not even have a central government. Its territory is divided among war lords, clans, al-Qaeda and ISIS. Attempts to create a unity government with the two largest fractions, each of which claims to be the national government, have up to now been a failure. The Unity President designate, Fayez al-Sarraj, backed by the United Nations, is not recognised by the various factions, which claim al-Sarraj is nothing more than a puppet of western governments. The “Unity President” does not even control the capitol Tripoli and is apparently holed up in a heavily armed naval base on the edge of the city. Thus the nation currently has de facto three rival governments.
While the US is keen to organise a unity government in Libya to fight ISIS forces there, the EU needs a head of state to sign a deal to stem the flow of refugees using the perilous sea route to Italy. It comes as little surprise that one of the first requests Mr Serraj made to the EU was support to build up Libya’s coast guard to stop people smugglers. With almost half the Libyan population dependent upon humanitarian aid, much of the nation’s infrastructure in ruins and the economy crippled, it is difficult to imagine that people smugglers are a national priority. International law does not permit refugees to be sent back to a war zone, although the German government appears to be confident that they can circumvent this should they find a legitimate head of state to sign a treaty.
President Obama is capitalising upon the EU’s crisis, offering the use of NATO naval forces to block refugee access to Europe, as is already the case in the Aegean, in return for increased EU military support in its war against ISIS. The President has made no secret of his disappointment with Britain and France for not following through militarily in Libya after its last dictator, Muammar Gaddafi, had been removed from power. Up to now European governments have been more interested in balancing their budgets than initiating expensive foreign military interventions. Yesterday President Obama met with the leaders of Germany, France, Britain and Italy to change this attitude.
Ms Merkel’s plans go much further however. Her government has initiated a broad diplomatic offensive to prevent refugees arriving in Europe from Asia and Africa. Shortly after German Interior Minister, Thomas de Maiziere, declared that Germany is interested in arranging deals with all the Maghreb states similar to that in Turkey, Germany’s Economic Minister and leader of the German Social Democrats, Sigmar Gabriel, not to be outdone by his political opponent, MS Merkel, was busy brown nosing Egypt’s current dictator General al-Sisi. During his visit to Egypt last week Gabriel declared that the dictator is an “impressive president”. The German government, which has already sold Egypt four submarines, is not only offering more weapons and equipment to control its borders, but to assist Egypt’s government to secure financial support for its desolate economy from the IMF and other institutions. The German government fears that should the economic and political situation in Egypt further deteriorate, its population will constitute the next wave of immigrants seeking safety in the EU.
Simultaneously the EU is offering the Eastern African nations Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia and Eritrea – all of these states are known for their egregious violations of human rights – incentive packages pending results on cooperation on returns of refugees from the EU. EU nations cannot simply send refugees back to their country of origin. This necessitates a bilateral agreement. These East African governments are more than happy to be rid of political dissidents or hope for remittances should their citizens find employment in Europe, thus up to now hindering such repatriation.
In the case of Sudan, against whom the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant in 2009 for its president Umar al-Bashir on counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, on offer is assistance in removing Sudan from the list of states supporting terrorism. The European Union Emergency Trust Fund for Africa already announced at the beginning of the month that it would provide Sudan with 100 Million Euros to assist returnees and improve security at the borders. This sounds more like nations being transformed into large prison camps. By thus supporting such regimes the EU perpetuates the reasons why so many refugees are seeking a new life in Europe.
Ms Merkel’s present domestic policy is stopping refugees entering Europe and throwing out as many as possible that have arrived. A third element of the German strategy is to force other EU nations to accept more refugees. While Poland, Hungary and Slovakia are not cooperating, other nations are prepared to receive only very limited contingents. Many EU governments see the agreement with Turkey as an attempt by Ms Merkel to save her political career. They feel they have solved the problem by building fences and using police and military personnel at the borders to defend these. Even Austria, Ms Merkel’s former ally on the issue of refugees, is currently building a fence on the Italian border at the Brenner Pass.
Similarly, many EU nations are becoming restless concerning Ms Merkel’s generous pledge on visa-free travel for Turks, part of a package Ms Merkel promised to Erdogan in return for blocking refugees from leaving Turkey as well as taking back those who made it to Greece, which was endorsed by the EU. Some 700.000 refugees may have been denied access to the EU, but soon 70 million Turks could be on their way. The agreement, made just before German state elections to save Ms Merkel’s Christian Democratic Party from a debacle, is apparently considered by many EU leaders as no longer binding. Turkey has threatened that any backtracking by the EU on this issue would result in the refugee floodgate via Turkey being re-opened.
Ms Merkel’s and the EU’s strategy is simply a repetition of past mistakes. The Arab Spring was a reaction to oppressive dictators and a desolate economic situation. There is no sign of these issues being addressed by Ms Merkel or the EU. To the contrary, apparently the EU is not only considering sending ships to patrol the coast of northern Africa, but even to send soldiers and police to the relevant nations to enforce its policy of Fortress Europe. Furthermore the EU is not taking into account that the situation has changed with the expansion of al-Qaeda and ISIS into Africa, including Egypt and the Maghreb States. Where formerly authoritarian governments in these regions could easily suppress discontent, these frustrated people now have a ready alternative: joining radical Islamic militant movements such as ISIS and al-Qaeda. Germany and the EU may not merely be kicking the can down the road, but priming the next explosion.