German President Joachim Gauck declared at Davos Wednesday that enacting quotas on refugee intakes may be “morally and politically necessary.” As the Financial Times reports:
“Even today, we are also discussing limits in terms of the number of people we can absorb,” said Mr Gauck in a speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos. “If democrats do not want to talk about limitations then populists and xenophobes will [. . .]
The president, a non-party figure who rarely intervenes in current political debates, said: “That could mean that policymakers have to develop and implement strategies to limit the number of people coming to our country — not as a knee-jerk defensive reaction but as an element of responsible governance. A limitation strategy may even be both morally and politically necessary in order to preserve the state’s ability to function.”[…]
Mr Gauck’s words carry weight because, as a former Lutheran pastor in communist East Germany, he is seen as a moral authority.
As is Angela Merkel’s father, something that has been key to her political biography and that is often linked in media accounts to her thinking on the refugee crisis. So while Gauck came out against imposing quotas right now (he said only that “For capacity there is no magic or mathematical formula. Instead, the measure is subject to a permanent process of negotiation in society and politics”) nevertheless his acknowledgement of the moral case for them is in many ways bigger news.
It’s fair at this point to ask if German (and more broadly, Western European) elite opinion is shifting on the refugee issue. Recently, Merkel has faced a significant push by Parliamentary members of her CDU party, and its Barvarian affiliate the CSU, for Germany to reinstate border controls. And other major party figures, such as Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, are known to be more hawkish on immigration than Mrs. Merkel. German Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel also took a more skeptical line on refugees at Davos, saying that 80 percent have no qualifications.
Meanwhile, Austria announced that it will impose “upward limits”—the politically-loaded term the CSU has been pushing for—on migrants for 2016. And Dutch PM Mark Rutte called for stricter enforcement of external borders and swifter implementation of the Turkey deal, saying that “We cannot cope with the numbers any longer.” It is, in short, much more acceptable for bien pensant Germans and Europeans to discuss immigration controls than it was a year ago. Will that help change Mrs. Merkel’s mind?
If she does move, she’s likely to find popular as well as elite support for the move: elite opinion has long been to the left of popular support on this issue. Mrs. Merkel is a very canny politician, and unless she is fully in bunker mode, she can also likely do the math: Germany cannot take everyone who would like to come. We would not, then, rule out a shift at some point.
However, timing does matter. The sooner Merkel acts, the greater her flexibility, and the more she’ll likely be able both to modulate the immigrant flow and to moderate the far-right reaction. But spring is coming, and so far, nobody expects it to bring anything other than an increase again in refugees: Rutte cited an expected fourfold increase in arrivals when the weather gets warmer, and warned of a six-to-eight week window for action. Come spring, Mrs. Merkel’s options may grow more limited.