On March 2 and 3, German Chancellor Angela Merkel travels to Egypt and Tunisia. Concerns about migration and refugees will top the agenda of her talks with Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed.
As she prepares for crucial elections this September, for many voters Merkel’s tenure is associated with the record number of 900,000 refugees that came to Germany in 2015 (another 280,000 arrived in 2016). The chancellor is under pressure to keep the promise she made late last year: “A situation like we had in the late summer of 2015 can, should and must not repeat itself.”
This promise was her answer to the charges of “loss of control” that have been have the heart of the case against Merkel by critics from within her own party and also the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD). To make good on her promise, Merkel needs the cooperation of North African countries which therefore have become a key focus of German diplomacy.
Thanks to the border controls in the Balkan states - leaving refugees stranded in Greece - and the European Union-Turkey deal, the number of migrants coming to the EU from Turkey has gone down significantly.
This has shifted the focus back to the Central Mediterranean. In 2016 alone, 181,000 migrants and refugees reached Europe irregularly with the help of traffickers operating out of war-torn Libya and other countries including Egypt. Many died while making the perilous crossing.
Germany and other EU countries seek to end this situation. As agreed at a recent EU Summit in Malta last month, the key goal is to “ensure effective control of our external border and stem illegal flows into the EU”.
Political leaders in Germany and beyond have realised that only if the EU can demonstrate to its citizens that it is in control of its external borders, the Schengen passport-free travel zone, one of the key achievements of European integration, can survive.
Controlling borders is a precondition for sustaining open societies in Europe. Advocates of liberal democracy and open society will be punished at the ballot box if they are seen as allowing for uncontrolled immigration into Europe.
In this sense, controlling borders is also a precondition for sustaining the political willingness to welcome refugees in Germany - polls indicate continuing support for accepting refugees in a controlled process but returning them to their homeland once their countries are safe.
The need for control is an assessment widely shared across the political spectrum in Germany. The disagreement is on the trade-offs involved in dealing with transit countries in the Mediterranean.
Green Party leaders have accused Merkel of “striking dirty deals” at any price. She has faced strong criticism for going soft on Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s authoritarianism for the sake of the deal on refugees. As long as there is no effective government in place and as long as the terrible conditions for refugees persist in Libya, hopes for any EU-Turkey style agreement with Libya remain pipedreams.
Given the unstable situation in Libya, German politicians have set their sights on the more stable transit countries, including Tunisia. Christian Democratic Union Interior minister Thomas de Maiziere and Social-Democratic parliamentary leader Thomas Oppermann have both called for establishing EU asylum processing centres in North Africa.
The idea is for asylum requests to be handled by EU authorities in North Africa. This would allow to return migrants rescued by EU member state authorities in the Mediterranean to North Africa, thereby making illegal crossings less attractive and destroying the traffickers’ business.
The Tunisian prime minister has rejected the idea, saying that this would destabilise Tunisia. This led Merkel to avoid the topic during Chahed’s visit to Berlin last month. She did, however, press Chahed on cooperating better on returning rejected asylum seekers home from Tunisia.
This is a burning concern for Merkel given that young males from North Africa with no prospects for being granted asylum are seen as a very problematic group in the German public debate. Merkel will likely press this issue again during her visit to Tunis.
Other elements of Merkel’s refugee policy also meant to keep numbers down are less controversial. These include spending more on protecting refugees in the Middle East and Africa.
This article has been excerpted from: ‘Control’ is the new core of Germany’s refugee policy’.