Auf Wiedersehen, Willkommenspolitik
What a difference five years makes. In the European summer of 2015, a huge wave of illegal immigrants overwhelmed Greece and angrily resisted any efforts to impede their onward journey to what they believed were the gold-paved streets of Germany – spurning the countries on the way which could have offered sanctuary.
Then, with barely any consultation with her European partners, Angela Merkel threw open Germany’s borders to the torrent. The other EU member-states were simply informed of Berlin’s decision and told that, by the way, they’d be expected to accept quotas of the unlimited numbers of asylum-seekers whom Merkel had decided to let in.
The torrent then predictably turned into a raging flood. In the last months of 2015, thousands arrived on Greek islands from Turkey every day on their way to northern Europe. Over the year, the EU admitted 1.3 million asylum-seekers.
But now, although Merkel has said she’d do it all again, neither she nor any other European leader has seized the opportunity for a rerun of her open borders Willkommenspolitik – ‘welcome policy’. Far from it. Instead, to the fury of the Green Left, EU leaders have declared ‘solidarity’ with Greece’s defence of its borders.
Why is Europe’s response so different this time?
Firstly, in 2015 the Greek authorities made no serious attempt to stop arrivals and impede their journey to the rest of the EU. This time the main land route north, through Macedonia, is sealed. And with no enthusiasm in wider Europe to share asylum-seekers around, Greece knows that if illegal immigrants reach its territory, it’s stuck with them.
Secondly, last July Greece’s left-wing Syriza government lost power in a landslide victory to the centre-right New Democracy party, strongly committed to better border security. It’s been true to its pledge and polls show over three-quarters of Greeks back Prime Minister Mitsotakis’s tough approach.
Thirdly, there’s no European enthusiasm for more experiments in mass immigration. Most voters think Merkel’s 2015 decisions to admit vast numbers of mainly economic migrants – disproportionately young males about whom little was known – was disastrous. The long list of subsequent terrorist attacks, many linked to asylum-seekers, deepened Europeans’ disquiet, as did the stubbornly-high proportion of asylum-seekers who are welfare-dependent, involved in crime and culturally difficult to integrate.
European voters have consistently punished the elites for these decisions in subsequent elections with increased support for the anti-immigration right. In the 2017 German federal elections, the Alternative for Germany party came out of nowhere to take 94 seats in the Bundestag. In the same year Marine Le Pen made it to the final round in France’s presidential elections and won 34 per cent of votes, up from 18 per cent in 2012. The anti-immigration right in Italy and Austria entered government.
Their momentum remains strong. Matteo Salvini, leader of Italy’s Lega party who stopped the boats in 2018-19 – before he caused the collapse of his own government – remains Italy’s most popular politician as his leftish successors, Kevin Rudd-like, unpick his policies which stopped the people smugglers. He’s virtually guaranteed to return to power at the next elections. In France, polling for the 2022 presidential election puts support for Marine Le Pen ahead of Emmanuel Macron. Tellingly, the normally über-woke Macron was quick to express fulsome support for the Greeks defending their borders.
The EU establishment has a long record of poor judgment and hypocrisy on illegal immigration. For example, Greece’s then defence minister Dmitris Avramopoulos enthused in 2013 about the effectiveness of its new fence on the Turkish border in stopping illegal immigrants. But then he became the EU’s commissioner for migration and, during the 2015 crisis, Hungary built a fence just like the Greek one. Avramopoulos’s line became that the EU didn’t want border fences. A few months later, the EU establishment secretly celebrated when Macedonia also built a fence on its border with Greece – identical with Hungary’s – blocking would-be migrants reaching the rest of the EU.
As to Merkel, she’s not only failed to explain why she’s not championing a rerun of 2015, but why Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán hasn’t received an apology for the EU demonisation he’s been subjected to for the past five years – for doing exactly what the Greeks are now doing with Brussels’s support. One of the hallmarks of Merkel’s leadership has been wildly varying positions on border security. After 1.3 million arrivals, she and the rest of the EU panicked and paid Turkey to use its coast guard to turn around illegal migrant boats – a border security measure the EU expressed horror over when used by Australia.
Macron also has strong form walking both sides of the border security street. He was Salvini’s biggest critic for stopping NGO ‘rescue’ boats but never offered French ports instead. And while Paris supported Berlin over its asylum-seeker quota proposals, it was relieved when the politically-incorrect east-central Europeans torpedoed the idea. Italy’s left-of-centre coalition has similarly tried simultaneously to please the latte-sippers by dismantling Salvini’s border security measures – while continuing to support the Libyan coast guard’s robust interception of Italy-bound boats.
In Australian terms, the EU’s leaders want to be Kevin Rudd but, in intermittent moments of panic, try to be Tony Abbott. If they want a political future they’ll need to be more consistent in following the example of the latter.
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Mark Higgie is the Spectator Australia’s Europe Correspondent
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