Sociologist Wolfgang Streeck explains the politics of the migrant crisis reshaping Europe

Summary: This essay by German sociologist Wolfgang Streeck provides a look at the the political crisis of Germany — and Europe — created by its leaders open of their borders, and more broadly about the new form of political leadership in the West (as Bush Jr. demonstrated for America after 9/11). He provides a different perspective than we see in the US news media. It is brilliant (the title is sarcasm).

One way nations are re-shaped

Migrants to Germany.
Migrants enter Germany on 20 October 2015. By Christof Stache/AFP/Getty Images.

Scenario for a Wonderful Tomorrow

By Wolfgang Streeck
London Review of Books, 31 March 2016
Published with his generous permission.

About Merkel, a model 21stC politician and architect of the new Europe

Europe is falling apart, destroyed by its most devoted fans, the Germans. In the summer of 2015, having humiliated the Greeks by forcing another reform diktat down their throats, Angela Merkel started a new game, aimed at diverting attention from the economic and political disaster monetary union had become.

Abrupt changes of policy are nothing new to Merkel, who is best described as a postmodern politician with a premodern, Machiavellian contempt for both causes and people. Having made her party adopt a radically neoliberal, deregulationist anti-labour platform in 2003, she barely escaped defeat two years later at the hands of Gerhard Schroeder. When she became chancellor, she used her office and the Grand Coalition with the post-Schroeder Social Democratic Party (SPD) to purge her own party of neoliberalism and neoliberals, and social-democratise it beyond recognition.

In 2011, after the nuclear accident at Fukushima, which received extensive media coverage in Germany, it took Merkel, then known as the Atomkanzlerin, no more than a few days to order the immediate closure of eight nuclear power plants and to initiate legislation to end all nuclear power generation by 2022 at the latest. This was only a few months after she had, with much political arm-twisting, got the Bundestag to repeal the nuclear phase-out passed by the Red-Green coalition in 2001, and to extend the operating licences of German nuclear plants by an average of ten years.

The refugee crisis

Last year, the refugee crisis offered Merkel another opportunity to demonstrate just how fast she can change tack. Once again, media coverage influenced her decision-making, just as it would a few months later when smartphone videos of the New Year’s Eve riot at Cologne Central Station triggered another 180 degree turn in her policies.

In July a PR event, part of a government campaign to encourage cabinet members to meet ordinary citizens and listen to their ideas, went wrong. One of the young people invited to take part in a ‘dialogue’ with Merkel on the environment, the 14-year-old daughter of Palestinian asylum seekers, unexpectedly complained in front of the TV cameras that her family, who had been living in Germany for four years, might be sent back to the Lebanon at any moment. She asked, in flawless German, why she wasn’t allowed to stay in Germany ‘to enjoy life like everybody else’. Merkel said something like, ‘we cannot take in everyone, much as we might want to.’ The girl began to cry. Not knowing what to do, Merkel started patting the child’s head with a helpless expression on her face. {See the story here.}

The result was widespread outrage on social media. A few months later, the authorities told the girl’s family that they could stay in Germany for at least another year.

The elite was persuaded that the German public would never put up with images like those of the Jungle in Calais. Day after day the media, whipped into a frenzy by Facebook and Twitter, accused France and Britain of callously denying migrants’ human rights. Then, in September, the publication of the photograph of the dead Syrian child, Alan Kurdi, forced political leaders worldwide into hectic if symbolic activity. Among Germans it was widely believed that the boy’s death was the fault of ‘Europe’ as a whole, including Germany. Meanwhile, refugees had been gathering in increasing numbers at Budapest’s central station, which produced another set of powerful images; most of those refugees seemed to be heading for Germany.

Alan Kurdi dead on beach
Photo by Nilüfer Demir. From Doğan News Agency (DHA), September 2015.

Exploiting the refugee crisis

A master politician like Merkel will never let a good crisis go to waste. It wasn’t just media stories about suffering migrants that led her to invite the refugees in Budapest to come to Germany, no papers required and no questions asked. What Merkel called ‘showing a friendly face in an emergency’ was meant to shame those who, during the euro crisis, had enjoyed the cartoons of Merkel and her finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, in Nazi uniform. By opening the German border while the French and British borders remained closed, Merkel could hope to recapture the moral high ground occupied for so long by those accusing the German government of sado-monetarism, or worse.

Another factor was the tight labour market that German employers, still Merkel’s main constituency, were facing, especially after the introduction of a statutory minimum wage was forced on Merkel by her coalition partner, the SPD.

Rumours spread in the German press that Syrian refugees in particular, many of them allegedly with degrees in engineering and medicine, had all manner of skills. German economic research institutes predicted a new Wirtschaftswunder, while employers promised to invest heavily in training the presumably tiny number of less skilled immigrants. Everybody assumed that most if not all the refugees and asylum seekers – a distinction soon lost in the general excitement – would stay in Germany for a long time if not for good.

For Merkel, who in October 2010 claimed that ‘the multikulti approach [had] failed, absolutely failed,’ this was no longer a problem. In fact, it had become a solution: in the first half of 2015, several studies indicated that the expensive measures taken over a decade of Merkel rule to induce German families to have more children had had next to no effect. Early that summer, to avert what was perceived as a looming demographic crisis, Merkel got her closest aides to test the mood in the party and among the general public on immigration legislation, but was met with firm resistance.

Kairos: when change becomes possible

Using the refugee crisis to restructure German politics and society

Budapest was what the ancient Greeks called a kairos – a lucky moment when a number of birds were positioned in such a way that they could be killed with one stone. Politics, as always with Merkel, trumped policies. ‘Showing a friendly face’ would make it possible for the Greens at the next election in 2017 to do what their leadership has long wanted to do but never dared: enter into a coalition government with the Christian Democrats.

Merkel acted exactly as she did on neoliberal reform in 2005 and nuclear energy in 2011: quickly, on her own, and without wasting time explaining herself. Just as she did when she ordered the Energiewende (‘energy transition’) while the law extending the lifespan of the nuclear power plants was still on the books (several energy supply companies are suing for damages), she counted on the opposition parties in the Bundestag – Linkspartei and the Greens – not to ask awkward questions, and they obliged. The members of her party couldn’t complain: they had been backed into a corner by the SPD’s approval of Merkel’s stance, and by their desire not to damage their leader.

Once again, a decision ‘that will change our country’, as Merkel herself put it, was made without regard for democratic process or, for that matter, constitutional formalities. When Merkel declared the German borders open, there had been no cabinet decision to this effect and no official statement in the Bundestag. Since the opposition didn’t ask, as Merkel knew they wouldn’t, nobody knows to this day what sort of order, legal or not, by whom and when, was given to the police. The Interior Ministry is still refusing requests from leading figures (including the former president of the constitutional court, who was preparing a legal opinion on the matter for the Bavarian government) for access to the ministerial decree that should have been issued to the border authorities.

Merkel shows how post-modern politicians can exercise extraordinary power

There were good reasons for asking questions. The refugees, more than a million of them, who arrived in Germany in 2015, all arrived from safe third countries. Under German and European law, they had to register in the country where they entered the European Union, and then wait to be assigned a legal residence in a member state. Merkel seems to have decided that she could safely ignore all this. When anyone complained that this was both a huge stress test on German society and a giant social engineering project, Merkel regally announced that if she had to apologise for ‘showing a friendly face’, ‘then this is not my country’ – an extraordinary statement for a democratically elected leader to make.

In fact, as the Energiewende demonstrated, she has for some time been governing not like a parliamentary leader but like a president with emergency powers. For some time, inquiries into the wisdom of her immigration policy were answered by her entourage – which in this case included all the Bundestag parties – by claiming that the mere expression of dissent ‘played into the hands of the right’, a potent rhetorical device in Germany. Until Cologne, concern over the government’s handling of the refugee crisis was effectively suppressed.

Between September and January, Merkel’s minister of the interior was left out of the loop as Merkel governed directly, using staged public appearances – press conferences, talk shows and party conventions – to cultivate the support of those in German society who saw the influx of refugees as an opportunity to demonstrate to the world their country’s new friendliness.

Merkel did not shy away from Obama-style nationalist pathos, employing it in her annual summer press conference on 31 August, when she told her compatriots:

“Germany is a strong country … We did so many things, we can do that. We can do it, and where something gets in our way, it has to be overcome.”

Angela Merkel - Time Person of the Year 2015

For six months she evaded all constitutional checks and balances, enjoying the praise showered on her by, among others, Time magazine, which made her Person of the Year 2015. She was talked about as a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize, and even Holocaust Remembrance Day on 27 January turned into a Merkelfest when the guest speaker in the Bundestag, an Austrian writer who survived the Holocaust, told her audience that…

“‘this country, which eighty years ago was responsible for the worst crimes of the century, has today won the applause of the world, thanks to its open borders.”

Effects on Europe of Germany’s contradictory policies

What about Europe? And why dwell so long on the refugee crisis when I’m supposed to be discussing a book on the euro crisis? The answer is that Merkel’s immigration policy offers an object lesson in what other countries can expect from Germany acting European.

Just as the United States sees the world as an extended playing field for its domestic political economy, Germany has come to consider the European Union as an extension of itself, where what is right for Germany is by definition right for all others. There is nothing particularly immoral about this; indeed Germans think it is supremely moral, as they identify their control of Europe with a post-nationalism understood as anti-nationalism, which in turn is understood as the quintessential lesson of German history.

Very much like the US, German elites project what they collectively regard as self-evident, natural and reasonable onto their outside world, and are puzzled that anyone could possibly fail to see things the way they do. Perhaps the dissenters suffer from cognitive deficits and require education by Schäuble in the Eurogroup classroom?

One problem with hegemonic self-righteousness is that it prevents the self-righteous from seeing that what they consider morally self-evident is informed by self-interest. The self-interest of German export industries, for example, underlies Germany’s identification of the ‘European idea’ with the single European currency. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that the national interest that is mistakenly seen as identical to the interest of all reasonable human beings, in Europe and beyond, is necessarily shaped by the political interest of the government and its dominant social bloc in preserving their power. This puts peripheral countries at the mercy of the national power games and the moral and semantic ethnocentrisms of countries at the centre, which are hard to decipher for outsiders – especially with a postmodern leader like Merkel who, free from substantive commitments and constitutional constraints, has perfected the art of staying in power by means of unpredictable changes of course.

As the refugee crisis unfolded, Europe was dragged into the complicated twists and turns of German domestic politics. Merkel early on informed an astonished German public that controlling national borders had become ‘impossible in the 21st century’, and backed this up by aggressively criticising the Hungarian government for preparing to close its borders.

After Cologne, of course, the closing of borders suddenly became possible again, and Hungary re-emerged as a model for the rest of Europe, in particular for Greece, which was threatened by Germany with exclusion from the Schengen area if it didn’t seal its borders.

German law forbids, or is said by the German government to forbid, sending would-be immigrants away once they have expressed a desire to apply for asylum. So Merkel had to get the Greeks, and Europe as a whole, to observe this principle, lest her German pro-immigration constituency smelled the rat that was heading in its direction. The burden of keeping the migrants out of Europe fell on Turkey, which was supposed to put an end to the illegal trafficking of migrants to Greece – on a country, that is, whose human rights record suggests it may not be particularly careful when dealing with Syrian or any other refugees.

Of course, Turkish co-operation had a price, and though Merkel had in the past steadfastly opposed the country’s bid for EU membership, now, having changed tack again and speaking on behalf of Europe as a whole, she promised Erdoğan expedited negotiations on accession as a reward for preventing the Syrian refugees she had invited to enter Germany from entering Greece. When Turkey demanded money too, Merkel chose to see this as a matter for ‘European solidarity’, just like the funding of the new EU border protection agency, Frontex, which patrols the Greek and Italian coastlines. European borders become German borders, and by implication Europe becomes Germany.

By mid-February, German warships under NATO command were patrolling the Mediterranean in order to intercept migrants and return them to Turkey. Since NATO warships are neither European nor German, even if they are German warships, the rescued can be sent back without the German courts or the German Greens interfering.

Wolfgang Streeck
Wolfgang Streeck


So immigration once again became ‘Europeanised’ while Europe became more ‘Germanised’ than ever. Merkel’s highest priority is to avoid having to close the German border, as Denmark and Sweden have closed theirs: closed borders make for ugly pictures, and they also make German voters wonder whether it’s worth paying for Europe if they have to stop at the border when they go on holiday.Moreover, German businesses have begun claiming that the end of Schengen would cost billions of euros because of time lost at Europe’s internal borders, as well as tens of thousands of jobs.

Even so, the German public had to be given a reason to believe that the number of immigrants coming to Germany is going to drop. EU member states must therefore agree to take a share of the immigrants invited by Germany, even though they weren’t consulted before Merkel made her offer. The number of migrants can have no upper limit, or Obergrenze, a term that Merkel’s PR machine has declared anathema, and that has consequently become a signifier in German public discourse of Fremdenfeindlichkeit (xenophobia, if not racism).

It’s difficult, however, for member countries to commit to letting in a defined proportion of an undefined total number of migrants. So Visegrád-bashing – Visegrád representing the alliance of four Central European countries, the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia and Hungary – followed Hungary-bashing, and German politicians started threatening Poland, of all countries, with financial punishment unless it fell in line with German-style ‘European solidarity’.

Merkel’s latest change of direction, with three critical Länder elections imminent, was announced in a speech to a CDU party conference on 30 January, when she pointed out that ‘protection under the Geneva Convention is for the moment limited to three years.’ Refugees had to understand that their status was a temporary one, she said. Addressing them as ‘Du’ rather than the more formal ‘Sie’, Merkel continued: ‘We expect that, when peace has returned to Syria and the IS in Iraq has been defeated, you will, with the skills that you have received here, return to your homeland.’

While this was designed to assuage the growing opposition to immigration and perhaps to deter some of the would-be immigrants, core supporters of Wilkommenskultur can still pin their hopes on the fact that in Germany refugees are normally granted indefinite leave to remain after three years, and only a tiny number are sent back to their countries of origin even if, after lengthy legal procedures, it’s decided that they haven’t got grounds to remain.

The result of all the equivocation, double-talk and Merkelspeak, this difficult-to-disentangle mix of self-interest and sentimentality, is an immense political and institutional mess caused by the imposition on Europe of German policies disguised as European policies to which, supposedly, there is no alternative. This includes a restructuring of the citizenry through immigration, not just in Germany where it might seem economically or demographically expedient, but also in other European countries where it definitely isn’t. The result is rapidly rising anti-German sentiment in the form of anti-European sentiment, not only among political elites but also, most powerfully, among the electorate.

Devastation has similarly been visited on the Economic and Monetary Union (EMU): German-dictated European solutions have led to economic and political disaster. As with immigration, many people across Europe are now calling for more national autonomy on economic policy, including monetary policy. There is more discussion than ever before of a ‘Plan B’ for the euro, in case attempts by France and Italy to force Germany and its allies into a non-German European solution to the crisis do not succeed. The new ‘European question’ is whether the only way to protect Europe from the antics of a German chancellor and her increasingly personal rule is to dismantle centralised European regulations like Dublin and Schengen, along with the euro.

———————— End of excerpt ————————

Europe’s Orphan: The Future of the Euro
Available at Amazon.

The remainder of his article reviews Europe’s Orphan: The Future of the Euro and the Politics of Debt by Martin Sandbu. Streeck’s conclusion…

Sandbu’s vision of a prosperous future under a common currency, with national autonomy benevolently policed by a well-ordered financial market, may seem an economist’s utopia. Whether monetary union will break down like Dublin and Schengen remains to be seen.

What seems most likely, unfortunately, is a big and long-lasting mess. National autonomy and sovereignty will be at the centre of a succession of indecisive battles over the meaning of European treaties, the political role and legal competence of the European Central Bank, the content of new reform packages, and the size of the transfers to which reforming countries will be entitled – all this accompanied by growing popular alienation and voter discontent. The North will threaten to starve the South, the South will gang up on the North, Germany will undertake to ‘reform’ France, France will demand ‘European solidarity’ from Germany.

There will be a decade of bad blood, mutual incrimination, temporary fixes and ever-declining respect for centrist parties, national governments and international institutions. It will be nasty, brutish and unfortunately far from short.

How Will Capitalism End?
Available at Amazon.

About the author

Wolfgang Streeck is sociologist and director emeritus at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies in Cologne. See his c.v. and publications, his website and his Wikipedia entry.

He wrote the provocative essay “How Will Capitalism End?” in the New Left Review, May-June 2014. He developed it into the book How Will Capitalism End?. From the publisher…

Capitalism is now in a critical condition. Growth is giving way to secular stagnation; inequality is leading to instability; and confidence in the capitalist money economy has all but evaporated. Capitalism’s shotgun marriage with democracy since 1945 is breaking up as the regulatory institutions restraining its advance have collapsed, and after the final victory of capitalism over its enemies no political agency capable of rebuilding them is in sight. The capitalist system is stricken with at least five worsening disorders for which no cure is at hand: declining growth, oligarchy, starvation of the public sphere, corruption and international anarchy.

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2 thoughts on “Sociologist Wolfgang Streeck explains the politics of the migrant crisis reshaping Europe”

  1. This is an interesting and informative article, FM. I had heard some small part of it during the most recent Greek crisis but had not realized the full ramifications until now.

    Merkel combines the energetic foreign policy shortsightedness of Lyndon Johnson, the contempt for consequences of George W. and Dick Cheney, and the reflexive policy shifts of Donald Trump (who, because he is not actually in office, has much more room to make mistakes). I did not think such a combination could stay in power for such a long time. Apparently the US leaders have been showing insufficient creativity when making these sorts of mistakes.

    What a calamity for Germany and the EU! It will be interesting to see if/how they overcome this self-inflicted mess.

    1. Pluto,

      I have confidence in the ability of leaders with poor judgement to remain in office for long periods. The interesting aspects, imo, of Merkel (and Bush Jr. to a lesser extent) is the ability to act without either public approval or ratification of the legislature. Not a good sign for the future.

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