Just a few weeks ago, the world media were filled with touching images of generous Germans welcoming bedraggled crowds of refugees. When German Chancellor Angela Merkel declared that the right to asylum "has no upper limit," the world applauded. Germany's open-door policy was regarded as a stern rebuke to meaner, more xenophobic countries. It was even rumoured that Ms. Merkel would win the Nobel Peace Prize.
Today, Germany is in crisis. It is being swamped with asylum seekers – as many as 10,000 a day. Smugglers are bringing in underage children and dropping them off by the side of the highways in the middle of the night. Public services are overwhelmed. School authorities say they need 25,000 new teachers for the kids. Local officials are scrounging for places to house people. They say they've reached the limit.
German public opinion has turned too. A new opinion poll for the German public broadcaster found that most Germans (51 per cent) no longer think their country can handle the refugee flow. Even Ms. Merkel's friends are warning that Germany's capacity isn't infinite. Joachim Gauck, Germany's widely respected President, recently warned that integrating refugees will be the nation's biggest challenge since East-West unification. "Just like in 1990 we're facing a challenge that will occupy us for generations," he said. "But unlike back then, something is now supposed to grow together that has not belonged together until now."
East-West integration turned out to be harder than anybody thought. Integrating the newcomers will be even harder.
For years, Germans have been told by their elites that they desperately need migrants to subsidize their pensions, replenish their aging population and address a growing shortage of skilled workers. That would make sense if the migrants were a lot like Germans. But they're not. Only a small number of the newcomers are well-educated professionals. Many more are illiterate, traumatized, children, or old. The majority are young men, with few skills and nothing to do. Almost none speak German. They are a poor fit with Germany's highly skilled, rigidly structured labour market.
Their cultural values are a poor fit, too. As one editorial writer commented, "Ultra-religious Muslims – and Christians – are coming face to face with a society that is indifferent to religion. Newcomers with rigid moral codes must learn to deal with the fact that in Germany gay people can openly kiss each other."
The refugees are also a poor fit with one another. There are Muslims and Christians, Sunnis and Shiites, Kurds, Albanians and Kosovars. They bring their ethnic tensions with them. Clashes are common in the overcrowded refugee shelters. Police say that the task of reconciling refugee factions and protecting immigrants from right-wing German groups has pushed them to their limits.
How many more will arrive? Nobody can say. A new government report, leaked to Bild newspaper, says the refugee influx this year could amount to a staggering 1.5 million – twice the previous forecast. "This high number of asylum-seekers threatens to be an extreme burden on state and local governments," the report says. Not everyone will get asylum, of course. Large numbers of migrants from the Balkans are being told to go home. But nobody seems to have a plan for turning off the tap. Ms. Merkel says the idea of erecting fences is futile. She believes the only way to reduce the burden on Germany is through international efforts to address the problem.
But what might those be? Under extreme duress, other European countries have reluctantly agreed to take in a few people. Those countries emphatically do not include Britain, where anti-immigration sentiment is running at around 75 per cent. Last week Theresa May, the Home Secretary, gave a blunt speech to the Conservative party convention, saying that the United Kingdom should drastically cut back on immigration because social cohesion is becoming impossible. New immigrants, she said, force down wages and put British workers out of jobs. She vowed that never "in a thousand years" would Britain accept European Union migrant quotas.
Predictably, most of the media were outraged. As usual, they argued that both Ms. May and the public are ignorant and prejudiced and don't know the facts.
But leaders across Europe are discovering that high-minded ideals and lofty sentiments aren't enough to persuade the public that open doors and porous borders are a good thing. And even people who admire Ms. Merkel are wondering if she has made the biggest blunder of her career.