Bye Bye Merkel Doctrine: German Foreign Policy Shifts Focus to Refugees

Germany's military may be facing greater involvement overseas as Berlin seeks to fight the causes of the refugee crisis.Zoom


Germany’s military may be facing greater involvement overseas as Berlin seeks to fight the causes of the refugee crisis.

With the refugee crisis showing no signs of abating, Germany is rapidly changing its foreign and security policy focus. Gone are the days of democracy promotion. Now the primary goal is that of preventing people from migrating to Europe. By SPIEGEL Staff

On the last Friday in October, German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen found herself in a government jet flying just outside of Syrian airspace. She was on the way to an international security conference in Bahrain for several meetings. Her mission: crisis diplomacy.

Meanwhile, diplomats from around the world were gathered in Vienna to discuss possible ways in which the Syrian civil war could be brought to an end — a conflict that is the primary cause for the enormous wave of refugees currently crashing over Germany and the rest of Europe. While still in the air, Von der Leyen was receiving hourly updates from the Vienna gathering. She was hopeful that a breakthrough could be reached so that she could continue the search for a solution in Bahrain.A few days prior, the minister had been in Iraq for talks in Baghdad and for a visit to the Kurds in the north of the country. But now, the Gulf was on von der Leyen’s agenda. Maps of the region were spread out on the table in front of her. Here, the Russians are bombing, and this is the area Islamic State has under its control, she said, pointing at the maps. It used to be that efforts aimed at pacifying global crisis regions fell into the category of foreign policy. These days though, such trips are part of “refugee policy,” as Germany attempts to address the roots of the problem.

Action Rather than Resignation

It is a goal that the German government has made its highest foreign and security policy priority: That of ensuring that as few refugees as possible embark on the long journey to Germany. The pursuit of that strategy has led to the launch of diplomatic initiatives, the questioning of development policy concepts, the subordination of long-held principles and the expansion of military missions.

The task is enormous. Europe, to borrow the vernacular of military leaders, is surrounded by a “ring of fire.” Across the Mediterranean, in North Africa and the Middle East, there is an arc of crisis made up of collapsing and precarious states, where a simple selfie with the German chancellor is enough to trigger thousands to begin a journey to Europe in search of a better future.

Because Europe can’t simply cut itself off, according to the logic of German refugee policy, much of the world must be transformed into a better place — an incredibly ambitious goal that is a combination of desperation and megalomania. “We have to restore state power and stability in countries like Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya,” Minister von der Leyen said the weekend before last. Action, rather than complaint and resignation, is her motto, the minister has often been heard saying in recent weeks. If you just energetically address a problem, she believes, the fortitude to solve it will appear by itself. It sounds, in other words, as though Minister von der Leyen believes in miracles.

But it’s not just German foreign and security policy that is to be recalibrated to address the refugee crisis. Development policy is also shifting. Until recently, support was made contingent on a country’s progress toward democracy and application of the rule of law. Now, there are plans afoot to use funding as a lever to encourage foreign governments to cooperate in refugee repatriation. That, at least, is one of the goals of the EU summit with African countries to be held in Malta on Wednesday.

Abandoning the Merkel Doctrine

The reorientation of German foreign policy is an admission of failure. For years, Chancellor Angela Merkel pursued security policy by way of weapons exports and military training missions: The so-called Merkel Doctrine. The goal, as Merkel described it in a 2011 speech, was to enable strategically important countries to guarantee their own security. Merkel’s hope was that the strategy could preclude the need for Germany to become involved in unpopular military missions abroad.

Now, though, Berlin has abandoned the Merkel Doctrine. Instead, German military missions are being planned, expanded or extended from Mali to Iraq to Afghanistan — to a degree that nobody could have imagined just a few short months ago. Within the shortest amount of time, a paradigm shift has taken place. “Three years ago, nobody thought we would have German troops in northern Iraq or Mali,” Geza Andreas von Geyr, director general for security and defense policy at the German Defense Ministry, said at a recent conference of the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung in Berlin, a think tank closely aligned with Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party. Indeed, the German military is even looking into the possibility of making Tornado reconnaissance planes available on the periphery of the Syrian conflict. The idea calls for them to monitor the airspace of NATO ally Turkey on its border with Syria — similar to the air policing mission in the Baltic states.

Among Chancellor Merkel’s center-right conservatives, foreign and security policy experts are laying the political groundwork for a change of course. “Foreign and security policy must now be increasingly focused on combatting the causes of refugee flight,” says the conservatives’ deputy floor leader Franz Josef Jung, who served as minister of defense from 2005 to 2009 in Merkel’s first government. His party colleague Roderich Kiesewetter, who is the leading Christian Democrat on the Foreign Affairs Committee in German parliament, says: “We have to focus on being prepared so that crisis regions do not become new sources of refugees.”

Resistance To Deployments Is Shrinking

German conservatives are now rapidly trying to establish the outlines of a new foreign and defense policy doctrine. The heart of the new concept will be Germany’s military. “The Bundeswehr has to play an explicit role,” says Jung. Training police forces and militaries will remain an element of the approach, in the hopes of preventing crisis-stricken states from collapsing. At the same time, though, the readiness to send German troops on robust military deployments abroad is growing — missions with aims such as separating conflict parties and protecting refugee camps.

Pacifism has long been a critical element of Germany’s approach to foreign policy, but that is changing, with some parliamentarians hoping that public skepticism of German military missions overseas is on the wane. Jürgen Hardt, foreign policy spokesman for the conservatives in parliament, says, with hope: “Whereas a majority of Germans used to be critical of sending soldiers abroad, acceptance for more robust military measures has recently risen.” The view is similar from within the Defense Ministry. There is no longer a “knee-jerk no,” says one ministry source.

The most recent example is the astonishing lack of resistance to the extension of the Bundeswehr’s mission in Afghanistan. Instead of completely withdrawing to Kabul as had been planned, German troops, it was decided in mid-October, are now to remain in the north of the country, continue training Afghan security forces and do what they can to at least slow the advance of the Taliban. The ultimate hope is that of improving living conditions in Afghanistan such that tens of thousands of people there will no longer want to uproot and head for Europe.

Safe Areas

It is, of course, unlikely that the extended presence of a few thousand NATO troops will succeed where 140,000 NATO troops, at the height of the Afghanistan operation, failed. That’s why Berlin’s primary goal is that of ensuring that at least part of the country remains safe enough that rejected asylum-seekers can reasonably be deported. Last Thursday, following a meeting with her two coalition partners — Sigmar Gabriel from the Social Democrats and Horst Seehofer of the Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party to the CDU — Merkel said that “intra-state flight alternatives” are to be created in Afghanistan. Chancellery Chief of Staff Peter Altmaier spoke of protective areas. De facto, that means that parts of the war-torn country are to be declared safe regions of origin. Not long prior to the meeting, Merkel held a telephone conversation with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to confirm that there were, in fact, areas in Afghanistan safe enough for deported refugees.

Still, the idea of safe areas is a controversial one within Merkel’s governing coalition. Development Minister Gerd Müller, of the CSU, says that such a plan could only be successful if it were it accompanied by massive investments in infrastructure and education. “A purely military solution will not work in the long term,” he said. SPD foreign policy expert Niels Annen warns: “Those demanding protection zones in Afghanistan are essentially demanding the re-launching of the military mission at a much greater dimension than before.”

Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, by contrast, indicated he was open to the idea following a meeting with SPD parliamentarians last Tuesday. “In the coming days, we will receive more refugees from Afghanistan than from Syria,” he said. Conservative floor leader Volker Kauder is also a supporter of the idea: “I think it is correct to establish safe zones in Afghanistan so that Afghans without the right to remain in Germany can return to secure areas of their homeland,” he says. Deputy floor leader Jung adds that the protection of such zones requires a well-trained and well-armed Afghan national army. “That is why we should continue our support of the Afghan national army and extend and expand the Resolute Support Mission, in which the Bundeswehr is a participant,” Jung says. Conservative foreign policy spokesman Jürgen Hardt adds that a plan must be developed for how the German military, together with the Afghan army, can establish the security necessary in the safe zones.

Expanding Efforts in Iraq and Africa

But it’s not just in Afghanistan that Germany’s military has begun focusing on refugee prevention. In Iraq, where the Bundeswehr arms and trains Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, the military would like to see its mission expanded by 50 troops, a proposition that has been the subject of high-level discussions between the Defense Ministry and Foreign Ministry in Berlin. In parallel, the German military plans to deliver more arms to the Kurds and to expand its support of the Iraqi government in Baghdad. Germany hopes that pushing back the Islamic State in Iraq will translate into fewer people fleeing the country for Europe.

Defense Minister von der Leyen has used a similar logic to justify the expansion of the German mission in Mali. A German reconnaissance unit is to be sent into the unstable northern part of the country in support of the UN peacekeeping mission there, known as MINUSMA, in part because several African refugee routes intersect in the region. Given that combat units will be necessary to protect the reconnaissance troops, Berlin plans to send a total of 400 to 500 German troops.

By referring to the need to fight the causes of the refugee crisis, the mission will no doubt be much easier to sell to the German people. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier recently said: “We have a great interest in helping Mali fulfil its commitments: to its own people by way of guaranteeing security, but also in the effective combatting of organized crime in the areas of drug trafficking and human smuggling.”

The Defense Ministry is even considering a mission to the failed state of Libya. The idea foresees a NATO training mission to rebuild Libyan security forces once the warring parties there come to agreement on the establishment of a government. German military leaders have no doubt that the Bundeswehr would have to be a part of such a mission. “As a leading country within the alliance, Berlin can no longer refuse,” one general says. “A secure Libya would help slow the wave of refugees.”

‘We Only React When It’s Too Late’

More aggressive German officers go even further. German NATO General Hans-Lothar Domröse, responsible for central and northern Europe, spoke not long ago of a possible alliance mission in Syria or Iraq. “It makes sense to militarily stamp out our neighbors’ fires. Otherwise, there is just misery and millions of people who begin fleeing to us.”

However, significant disagreement remains within the German government when it comes to using development aid as a tool to fight the refugee crisis. Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière would like to see the threat of foreign aid reduction as a way to pressure states to take back their citizens who have fled to Germany. Conservative floor leader Kauder agrees. “Connecting development aid to the requirement that countries take back those who have fled is the right thing to do,” he says.

But the Development Ministry is against it. “What benefit would it have to cut funding to a girls’ school in Nigeria, for example, or to an educational center in Ethiopia?” asks Müller. “The result would be even more refugees.” The minister is demanding that aid to countries like Jordan and Lebanon, which are offering shelter to an enormous number of refugees, be significantly increased. “We are sitting on the sidelines as Lebanon founders instead of offering the country much more help in dealing with the refugee crisis. We only react when it’s already too late.”

‘Legal Channels for Migration’

Despite the German development minister’s concerns, the EU is also focusing on offering countries money in exchange for cooperation on remittance. That approach is the central element of the action plan that EU leaders intend to agree on with their African counterparts on Wednesday (Nov. 11) in Malta. In the draft agreement, Europe pulls out the entire arsenal of development and economic policy to convince African countries to prevent people from leaving or to take them back once they do.

Among other promises, Europe is pledging the creation of “new economic opportunities for young women and men” as well as “support to micro-, small- and medium-sized enterprises.” The most significant concession being made to the Africans is the promotion of “legal channels for migration and mobility from and between African countries.” In exchange, the EU expects greater “cooperation in order to facilitate the return and sustainable reintegration of irregular migrants.” By the end of 2016 at the latest, the African countries are expected to “enhance protection capacities.” And African officials are to assist European countries in determining the nationalities of illegal immigrants who have found their way into the EU. “Such identification missions will take place in the first quarter of 2016 with at least 10 African countries,” the draft document reads.Radical changes are also going to be made to the European Neighbourhood Policy. The draft of the new Neighbourhood Policy, to be passed on Nov. 18, speaks of “new priorities” and of “drawing a line under the old way of doing things.” In the future, the top priority will no longer be that of promoting democracy. Stability is the new focus. Special funds for “supporting refugees, combating crisis and security and stability programs” are envisioned. A program called “Brain Circulation” is to encourage trained migrants to return to their homelands.

The price for the recalibration of Germany’s foreign and security policies to focus on the refugee problem is clear. The country will have to be prepared for involvement in more, and more dangerous, military missions abroad. Furthermore, democracy and the rule of law will fade further into the background. Instead, stability takes precedence — even if, though it isn’t often discussed, it means supporting dictatorships.

By Markus Feldenkirchen, Matthias Gebauer, Christiane Hoffmann, Peter Müller, Ralf Neukirch, Christoph Schult and Gerald Traufetter


Categories: Europe, Germany, Malta

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1 reply

  1. I said it years – no, decades – ago: If you do not want economic refugees to come to Europe help them to create jobs ‘back home’. If you do not want war refugees to come to Europe do not deliver arms and bombs in their countries.

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