Richard Ogier is an Australian journalist based in Munich.
With Germany facing elections on Sept. 24, here's a clue to the nation as it is; how it's travelling; adapting; its fit in the world, when the most powerful and oldest democracies, the United States and Britain, have taken a resolutely populist turn. With a 13– to 17-percentage-point lead in opinion polling, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who opened national borders to a staggering one-million refugees, looks set to be re-elected for a fourth consecutive term.
Ms. Merkel had the grit, moral integrity and it's turned out, staying power, to face down Europe's biggest humanitarian crisis since the fall of the Berlin Wall. She waved 20,000 mostly Syrian refugees through to Munich central station in a single weekend in September, 2015. That's as many as then-British prime minister David Cameron agreed, eventually, to take in five years. Another 980,000 refugees would stream into Germany through 2015-16.
Many of the desperate million also came from war-torn Afghanistan and Iraq, where Western military strategies and diplomacy contributed to and then failed to remedy complex multiparty conflicts. Syria's civil war saw Barack Obama set and ignore his "red line" about the use of chemical weapons, as aerial bombing raids hit water and electricity supplies, hospitals and rescue workers, and extremists targeted the civilian population, not as potential supporters, but as a threat to be eradicated. Since the start of the conflict, some half a million Syrians have been killed; 11 million people, half of Syria's prewar population, have been displaced.
Have levels of cynicism reached such heights that acts of integrity are distorted and eventually minimized? It was with the so-called Balkan route closed and thousands of people gathered on a platform at Budapest's Keleti railway station – after Syrian Alan Kurdi's three-year-old body washed up on a Turkish beach; after 71 refugees were found dead from asphyxiation in the back of a refrigeration truck near the Austrian-German border – that Ms. Merkel, the purportedly timid, the heartless "dominatrix" of the Greek debt crisis, waved through the thousands. Pusillanimous critics said she opened her arms to compensate for Germany's failing birth rate, the mere puppet of German business, as if compassion and pragmatism shouldn't sit side-by-side at the crux of any political reckoning.
Facing further criticism for acting hastily and failing to "consult," she consulted, drawing up with European Union Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker a pilot plan to allocate (a separate) 160,000 refugees across Europe, enacting the principle that one size can't fit all and that EU member states have varying capacities to absorb refugees, based on criteria such as growth and employment. Well, nobody acted quickly; in fact, some EU countries still haven't taken any refugees, unveiling the "consultation" claim for what it was: a lack of political will. Faced with growing German capacity concerns, Ms. Merkel then made six trips to Turkey – on her own, without Mr. Cameron or then-French president François Hollande – to hatch the refugee deal that, in an immediate sense, bailed Europe out.
Alongside Ms. Merkel's decision has been the gargantuan effort of the German population – €20-billion ($29-billion Canadian) of taxpayer funds were spent on refugees in 2016 alone; 325,000 refugee children have been integrated into German schools. Support rose for the anti-immigrant Alternative for Deutschland (why shouldn't Germany also have the debate about immigration?) but has declined again and remains low relative to other European countries at about 9 per cent. In fact, at almost 40 per cent, more Germans are "sure" or "very sure," according to a public opinion poll in May, that their country can overcome the challenges posed by the refugee intake than at the time of the Munich arrivals and the so-called Willkommenskultur (welcoming culture).
Unlike Britain and France, Germany does not look to its recent past for solutions. And yes, it's probably true that the horrors of that recent past played a part (as did the low national birth rate) in Ms. Merkel acting as she did. But in 10 or 20 years, perhaps those countries that had the tough courage and commitment to take refugees in substantial numbers – Germany, with Canada and Sweden – will have redressed their labour-force imbalances, reversed a declining birth rate and paid for their pension systems. Those prepared to hear the cry of the weak in the long night of the Middle East will have turned things around, be out front and winning.
So Ms. Merkel's decision has given Europe's strongest economy a certain moral integrity. To the question of what, in humanitarian terms, Europe ultimately stands for, Angela Merkel has given an answer.