The West’s divisions on immigration have never been so publicly on display as in recent years.
On the one side, you had a U.S. president last week blaming Democrats for his own administration’s decision to separate children from their immigrant parents, before ultimately proving wrong his claim of being unable to intervene and signing an executive order to end the practice.
And then, about 5,800 miles away last Friday, there was conservative German Chancellor Angela Merkel at a Lebanese school in Beirut where hundreds of Syrian refugee children go to class in the afternoons. Even though Merkel’s chancellorship is on the brink of collapse exactly because of her liberal stance on the issue, she still went to Beirut and was photographed with refugees.
Trump and Merkel never agreed on immigration issues, but the wide gap in the leaders’ very different stances became starkly visible last week in dueling images. On one hand, there were children literally in cages on the U.S. border, while on the other, Merkel mugged for refugee children.
At the peak of Europe's refugee influx in 2015, the German leader adopted a liberal immigration stance that allowed more than 1 million to enter the country. The repercussions of that decision can still be felt, and may even cost Merkel her office as her own sister party is threatening to walk away from the alliance that has kept her in power. Bavaria’s CSU party, which forms an alliance with Merkel’s CDU nationally, threatened to implement border controls despite Merkel’s opposition.
The politician who has seldom put her emotions on display in more than 12 years in office was photographed playing with children in Beirut in the midst of a political crisis, making faces, juggling balls or jokingly sticking out her tongue. Germany media outlets such as DW were similarly stunned, calling it “extremely rare footage.”
The use of images appears to be increasingly the strategy of Merkel’s press office, rather than directly addressing some of the issues of the moment. Take the fraught relations with President Trump and the photo the Germans put out of the Group of Seven in which the chancellor appears to confront a reluctant Trump.
Deliberately or not, that photo stood in direct contrast to a relaxed Merkel and then-President Barack Obama at the G-7 summit in June 2015.
Friday’s photo of Merkel at a school for Lebanese children and Syrian refugees brought back memories of 2015, when Merkel smilingly posed for selfies with newcomers in Germany.
Merkel’s refugee selfies were later used in attacks by her political opponents. So, in a week in which the world’s biggest Western democracy was engulfed in an ugly fight over immigration and Germany neared a showdown over similar issues, it was somewhat remarkable that Merkel appeared ready to defiantly defend her political legacy by once again showing herself with refugees.
It’s worth keeping in mind that her legacy may not be as liberal as many believe it to be. Merkel has pushed for deportations of Afghans whose asylum applications were not approved. And contrary to public belief, the chancellor did not actively open Germany’s borders to welcome more than 1 million refugees — in fact, the borders in Europe’s borderless Schengen area were never closed.
But unlike other conservative politicians in Europe, Merkel has attempted to bridge the divide between a humane response to immigration and the skepticism of such a response among her right-wing base.
Trump and Merkel each rely on conservative voters, but the two leaders have still fundamentally differed in their approach to immigration. Merkel adopted a welcoming stance, even though it made her look weak in the eyes of many political allies and resulted in an unexpectedly weak performance in elections last year. Trump, however, has favored looking strong over coming up with a consistent policy, as my colleagues observed last week.
It may be hard to imagine Trump going to Latin America to play with refugee children, but it’s just as difficult to imagine Merkel shaking hands with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.