When German Chancellor Angela Merkel threw her country’s borders open to hundreds of thousands of refugees last month, she won praise from around the world for her generosity and humanitarianism. Denigrated during the summer for being hard-hearted toward the heavily indebted Greeks, Merkel basked in a rare glow of international approval. The German people also responded generously to the migration crisis. The first arrivals were cheered and handed sweets.
But with more than a million refugees expected to have settled in Germany by the end of this year, the welcome is wearing thin. Anxieties about the sheer weight of numbers have multiplied as German authorities struggle to cope; city officials in Hamburg have seized empty office buildings to house the incomers, and schools are overwhelmed by non-German speaking children.
Fifty-one percent of Germans now say they’re worried about the migrants, up from 38 percent a month ago. Merkel’s popularity has fallen to its lowest level since the start of the euro crisis in 2011, and confidence in her ability to handle the crisis has waned.
“When she said, ‘Yes, we can!’ people thought: It’s a brave statement,” said Michael Wohlgemuth of the Open Europe think tank in Berlin. “And now people are asking her, 'How? How can we take in such a large number of people in a short space of time?' And there are no clear answers to that.”
Few people doubt Germany’s overall economic capacity to cope. The current budget surplus of 20 billion euros should cover the extra costs this year, and the labor market should be able eventually to absorb the incomers. Unemployment is 4.5 percent — a record low — and more people are just what the country needs.
“Germany is a fast-ageing society. Its population is much older than Britain’s or France’s. The labor force is shrinking,” said Simon Tilford of the Centre for European Reform in London.
“This big influx could provide an ever-useful supply of labor, as long as the people integrate.”
As long as they integrate. Integration — or the lack of it — is what worries an increasing number of Germans. Berliner Gudrun Heise regards herself as a moderate, but she voices a widespread concern about the foreigners flooding into her country.
“These people do not fit in here at all," she told Marketplace. “They are loud and leave endless amounts of garbage lying around. On top of that, they discriminate against women. That I cannot tolerate. They have no respect at all for our culture. I think Angela Merkel has badly mishandled the situation.”
Merkel is under pressure to halt the inflow. So far she’s refused to put an upper limit on the numbers that will be allowed in, and she has called on other European Union countries to show solidarity, accept many thousands of refugees and share some of the burden that Germany has taken on.
But, so far, no other EU countries — apart from Sweden — are prepared to throw their doors wide open. And the southern eurozone countries make a wry complaint. Merkel, they say, was not prepared to shoulder the burden of our debt. Why should we share the burden of “her” refugees?