The Syrian refugee crisis in 2015 ignited a bitter rivalry between Germany's Angela Merkel and Austria's Sebastian Kurz. Merkel was in favor of a "culture of welcome," while Kurz argued for border protection. But with the current Afghan refugee crisis, the German leader is shifting course.
BERLIN — Six years ago, the now outgoing German Chancellor,Angela Merkel argued that borders cannot be divided by walls. That was on Oct. 26, 2015. Her future Austrian counterpart, Sebastian Kurz, disagreed. "It's simply not true to claim that it doesn't work," he said in an Austrian radio interview. "The question is whether we want to do it or not."
It was the first time the Austrian chancellor, at that time foreign minister, had openly contradicted Merkel. Kurz went on to say that it was "hypocritical" to give Turkey money for border protection and "at the same time make grand statements about humanity." He said Merkel should "be honest" about her stance.
Here was a 29-year-old politician openly accusing the most powerful national leader in Europe of hypocrisy and dishonesty. It was the start of a long-running battle that centered on different views about what the values of a conservative party should be. A battle that is suddenly heating up again.
In the past it was Syria. Now it's Afghanistan.
Last week, Sebastian Kurz made what will probably be his last visit to the departing German chancellor. The subject of their discussions was once again how to deal with refugees. In the past it was Syria. Now it's Afghanistan.
"Austria has taken on more than its fair share of Afghan refugees," said Kurz as he stood next to Merkel in Berlin. "Relative to our population, we have the fourth largest Afghan community in the world."
A quiet convergence
Kurz is not playing politics with the German chancellor. His view on accepting refugees from Afghanistan is well known. For weeks now, every time Kurz has stood before a microphone, he has said the same thing: no Afghan refugees in Austria, or in Europe, whether they arrive there themselves or are taken as part of a quota. He has argued for helping refugees within Afghanistan or its neighboring countries, and sending any refugees who arrive in Europe back to the region.
In his interview in October 2015, he was already arguing for a system "where asylum seekers can make their applications in their country of origin or countries they are passing through, outside of the European Union."
His stance has been unwavering. Instead, it's Angela Merkel who has been edging gradually closer to Kurz's position. While in 2015 and 2016 she consistently argued for "solidarity" in accepting quotas of refugees in Europe. Now Merkel is speaking about deportation and protecting the EU's borders.
The two politicians, who also clashed during the Syrian refugee crisis, now seem to be aligned. Merkel is not contradicting Kurz at all. Like him, she says that the EU should provide funds to help people stay in Afghanistan — that they need to look after the 550,000 or so internally displaced people within Afghanistan and protect them from a possible famine. Meanwhile, conversations with neighboring countries about accepting refugees are ongoing.
People evacuated from Afghanistan waiting in a hangar at Ramstein Air Base in Germany — Photo: Uwe Anspach/dpa/ZUMA Press
Merkel is employing two strategies: First, she is narrowing down the question. For the moment she has said that she is focusing on the "10,000 to 40,000" local staff, although UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi has said that the internally displaced persons in Afghanistan are the biggest problem.
Second, Merkel is playing for time when it comes to the refugees who want to travel to Europe. "We have not yet reached a decision" about quotas for the resettlement of those entitled to protection in Europe, she says. "We will only be able to answer that question when we see how many people leave Afghanistan." That will depend on conditions under the Taliban.
The EU is struggling to establish a joint asylum policy — resettlement will be decided at national level.
The resettlement question has already sparked conflict within the EU. The European Commission has asked member states to declare by mid-September how many refugees they can accept — not only Afghans, but generally. In total, all member countries only promised 30,000 places for 2020 and 2021. Luxembourg's foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, was the first European politician to name a special figure for Afghans, saying the EU should accept 40,000 to 50,000 people.
German Federal Minister of the Interior Horst Seehofer (CSU) was quick to reject Asselborn's proposal. "Luxembourg takes on very few refugees, and it should consider the interests of those countries that accept the bulk of refugees a little more closely," he said. The EU is currently struggling to establish a joint asylum policy — resettlement numbers will be decided at national level.
Mum's the word
Since Kurz first came to power in 2017, Austria has no longer taken part in resettlement programs. Greece and Slovenia have announced that they will not accept any Afghans. Countries such as the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Italy, Portugal and Spain, however, have said they will take a quota, although as yet no one has named a concrete figure.
Then there are those who make their own way by land to Europe. During the Syrian refugee crisis, Germany accepted more than a million people who arrived this way. But although these people were at the heart of Angela Merkel's culture of welcome six years ago, she is now remaining silent about them.
Turkey is building a wall along its border with Iran, in order to keep Afghans out. Greece is building a wall on its land border with Turkey and returning migrants it picks up on the water to Turkey, although that is against EU law. And so far, Angela Merkel is saying nothing.
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