BERLIN — German Chancellor Angela Merkel, defender of the liberal order, stood alongside Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, promoter of “illiberal democracy,” at a joint news conference this past week and made a plea for the soul of Europe.
“Europe’s basic principle,” she said, is “humanity. That means we are protecting our outer borders but not with the aim of simply closing ourselves off.”
That’s been a common refrain of Merkel’s tenure. She and French President Emmanuel Macron have been the most prominent advocates for cosmopolitan Europe. But the vision the Franco-German power couple is defending these days is vastly diminished.
Merkel welcomed nearly 1 million migrants and refugees into Germany in 2015 with the mantra, “We can do this.” Yet, this past week, the German chancellor called for more “order, control and prevention” of migration, as well as quicker deportation of asylum seekers with no legal right to stay in Germany.
Macron once praised Merkel’s “dignity” on the migrant question. Running for the French presidency against the far-right Marine Le Pen, he was widely seen as the candidate of multicultural tolerance. But he has adopted policies on immigration that have scandalized even his allies — most notably a restrictive asylum law to be adopted this summer.
“What we are witnessing is a continuous watering down of asylum and reception standards,” said Petra Bendel, a migration expert at the University of Erlangen-Nüremberg. “It’s a giving up of European values and norms of human dignity and human rights.”
As it pursues its own restrictive policies, the Macron administration publicly recoiled from President Trump’s policy of separating children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border. “We do not share the same model of civilization; clearly we don’t share certain values,” said Benjamin Griveaux, an Elysee Palace spokesman. Macron also replaced the French ambassador to Hungary after the latter praised Orban’s zero-tolerance immigration policy as “a model.”
France and Germany, however, largely stood by as European Union member states shut their borders. And they are not expected to confront Trump on immigration at next week’s NATO summit.
The French and German leaders have retrenched their positions even as the number of asylum applications to the European Union has plummeted. Migrant arrivals have fallen back to pre-2015 levels.
The crisis these leaders are responding to is almost entirely political. Images of refugee boats arriving and fears of a European culture under threat, along with a number of violent attacks linked to migrants, have fed growing nationalism and anti-migrant public opinion.
Merkel’s governing coalition has been anxious about the encroachment of the far-right Alternative for Germany. In an effort to prevent losing votes in October regional elections, Merkel’s Bavarian sister party has tacked right on immigration, and her interior minister, Horst Seehofer, gave her an ultimatum that almost brought down the government this past week.
Merkel ultimately consented to a plan to build “transfer centers” to house asylum seekers while their status is reviewed, to turn away people who have already applied for asylum elsewhere in Europe, and to patrol the German-Austrian border — a move that could allow for racial profiling and jeopardize the core European principle of free movement between nations.
“Whatever her beliefs are, no one in Germany knows,” said Michael Koss, a political scientist at the University of Munich. “One of course has to ask the question of how many compromises will really make her able to say, ‘I always kept my original position.’ ”
In contrast to Merkel, Macron holds an absolute majority in the French Parliament. There is no comparable threat to his power. But he has an eye on what he has called the “leprosy” of nationalism that has toppled centrist governments elsewhere in Europe.
Macron supports a French new law that will crack down on economic migrants, rely on deterrence mechanisms such as heavy fines and potential jail time and streamline the process by which authorities can turn asylum seekers away.
“I want France and its national cohesion to remain intact,” he said, justifying the approach.
But even some of his supporters see the move as an unnecessary deal with the devil.
“To lose one’s soul is much more serious than to lose elections,” said Dominique Moïsi, a fellow at the Paris think tank Institut Montaigne, who once advised the Macron campaign on foreign policy.
There is also the situation that already exists along the French-Italian border, which could serve as a potential model for what might soon materialize between Germany and Austria. French authorities screen incoming trains and cars for those they suspect to be illegal immigrants, detaining those they catch overnight. Human rights watchdogs have regularly reported police abuses, especially with regard to unaccompanied minors.
For immigration experts, those border checks are proof that the political right has already won significant ground on immigration, terrain that may never be reclaimed by those who favor the Schengen zone’s promise of borderless travel.
“[Macron] may want to save Merkel, but at the same time he agrees with the program of Seehofer and the CSU,” said Patrick Weil, a leading French historian of immigration and constitutional scholar, referring to the Christian Social Union party.
When he was a presidential candidate, Macron had nothing but praise for Merkel’s migration policy. “Chancellor Merkel and German society as a whole were up to the mark of our joint values,” Macron said in early 2017. “They saved our collective dignity by taking in refugees and providing them with accommodation and education.”
As they arrive in Brussels for the NATO summit, Merkel and Macron will be among few left to defend what was once a robust vision of an open, tolerant Europe. But in the summer of 2018, in a Europe under siege within and without, those “joint values” are unlikely to be trumpeted. In fact, what exactly those values are is no longer clear.