The Necessity of Courage When Contemplating Political Suicide

For Europe's moderate leaders, the decision to accept Syrian refugees will only bolster far-right, nationalist demagogues. They must still do it.

A refugee holds a picture of German Chancellor Angela Merkel after the arrival of refugees at the main train station in Munich, southern Germany, September 05, 2015. Hundreds of refugees arrived in Germany on September 5, 2015 coming from Hungary and Austria. AFP PHOTO / CHRISTOF STACHE        (Photo credit should read CHRISTOF STACHE/AFP/Getty Images)
A refugee holds a picture of German Chancellor Angela Merkel after the arrival of refugees at the main train station in Munich, southern Germany, September 05, 2015. Hundreds of refugees arrived in Germany on September 5, 2015 coming from Hungary and Austria. AFP PHOTO / CHRISTOF STACHE (Photo credit should read CHRISTOF STACHE/AFP/Getty Images)

A few days ago, I took a mid-afternoon train from Salzburg to Munich. The train was virtually empty at departure time. Suddenly the corridors filled with men, women, and children carrying plastic bags and backpacks — a tiny eddy of the torrential flow of immigrants crossing Turkey and Europe to seek a new life in Germany. The Syrians in my compartment, who spoke a few words of English, had made a sea crossing to Bodrum, spent five months in Turkey, and then walked for the last month across Serbia to Hungary before boarding a train. They seemed remarkably cheerful, perhaps because they just had been fed, bathed, and clothed at a Red Cross intake center at the Salzburg train station.

The Syrians found a new compartment, leaving me with a mother, father, and adult daughter from Iraq. “Saddam,” said the mother helpfully. The train sped through the plush and mild Austrian countryside, a gently rolling green carpet upon which fat brown cows grazed. I wondered what the Iraqis were thinking. They, and the Syrians, had escaped from hell to a Turkish purgatory and now, only an hour or two from the end of their epic journey, had reached the bewildering Elysium of the West. Among themselves they repeated the magic word “Munich.” And then we were there. They had, improbably, made it to safety.

The refugees have, in fact, two talismanic words — Munich and Merkel. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has said her government expects to take up to 800,000 refugees this year — 1 percent of the country’s population. In the case of Syrians, she has said, Germany will ignore European Union rules that require refuges to register at their first EU point of entry. Merkel’s courage is exemplary. But it won’t mean very much unless her fellow leaders — in Europe, but not only — follow her example. Right now there is no reason to believe that will happen.

The vast tide of asylum-seekers marching westwards to Europe has provoked a test of conscience that few politicians wish to face. Postwar Europe rebuilt itself on a foundation of human rights and core Western values; no one can question that sheltering war refugees falls within those principles.

Yet the domestic politics of doing what is plainly the right thing are so dangerous as in some cases to look almost suicidal. I was in Salzburg for a conference organized by the International Peace Institute (IPI), a New York-based research organization, and several Austrian participants told me that the FPO, the far-right party that traces its origin to the late fascist leader Jörg Haidar, is poised to win provincial elections next month in Vienna — not the mountains of north Tyrol but the center of Mitteleuropean culture. That’s an appalling development. Nevertheless, Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann, after a good deal of initial hesitation apparently ended by a phone call from Merkel, agreed to admit refugees bottled up on the border with Hungary.

It is a stand-up-and-be-counted moment for Europe; but few are standing. What Donald Rumsfeld once lauded as the “new Europe” — the east — has unanimously rejected calls to facilitate the refugee flow. Viktor Orban, Hungary’s prime minister, has said that the problem belongs to Germany, not Hungary, since the migrants only want to settle in Germany. At the IPI conference, a senior diplomat from an East European country said that he could not force refugees to settle in his state, since all of them wanted to emigrate to Germany. How, he asked with a straight face, could his country perpetrate such an injustice?

Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, has called on member states to accept binding quotas to resettle 160,000 refugees, and establish a permanent system of EU border guards in lieu of the current patchwork system of national police. Juncker was brutally candid about the current state of affairs. “I don’t want to get despondent,” he said, “but Europe is not in good shape.” Leading diplomats in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Poland promptly denounced the plan.

Europe’s collective voice is saying: Let this cup pass from my lips. That’s discreditable. But why should the burden be Europe’s alone? It’s quite true that Syrians and Libyans can’t easily make their way to North America or South Korea, but that’s an accident of geography rather than a meaningful moral distinction. Like the climate change-induced desertification of North Africa, the refugee crisis is a localized event provoked by global phenomena. The United States bears a special responsibility not only because of its wealth but it has done so much to make a hash of the Middle East.

On the last day of the IPI conference, the organizers decided to tear up the schedule, and instead issue a call to arms on the refugee crisis that it grandly titled the “Salzburg Declaration.” The signers proposed as Juncker did, a quota allocation of refugees, and also called for the establishment of a “Solidarity Fund” to pay for the cost of “reception centers” along the migrants’ routes and for the transportation of migrants to their ultimate destination. But the declaration is directed not at Europe but at the international community — i.e., everybody.

The signers do not, of course, expect that President Barack Obama will offer to take in 800,000 more refugees, or even 80,000. America has its own Viktor Orban in the form of Donald Trump, and the other Republican candidates for president are out-bidding one another for the nativist vote. Orban wants to build a wall in southern Hungary; they want to build two: along the border with Mexico, and now Canada. The Obama administration has promised to take in at least 10,000 Syrian refugees this year. That’s nice, but it’s 2,000 less than Australia, population 23 million, has agreed to take. The United States should compensate for the paltry numbers by paying for the resettlement of refugees elsewhere. (The Republicans, of course, will try to block that, too.)

We mustn’t delude ourselves about hard this will be. Lowering the barriers to entry will increase the flow of refugees — maybe radically. Even should we agree to turn back economic refugees and only accept victims of war and repression, that category includes Malians and Nigerians and South Sudanese and God knows how many others. Many of the 3.5 million Syrian refugees currently quartered in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan could decide to try their luck in Europe. And as the numbers rise, so, too, will the popularity of far-right parties in Europe.

Without brave political leadership, the refugee crisis could become a political catastrophe for Europe. Merkel has admitted that the flood of new people “will occupy and change our country in coming years.” That’s a nettle that no other leader has yet been willing to grasp. But if they don’t, the nativists will exploit those changes in order to orchestrate a Fortress Europe. Is there any reason to doubt, for example, that France’s National Front will use the migrant influx to vault over the Socialists in the 2017 presidential balloting? President Francois Hollande can either lead on the issue or be buried by it. (I admit, of course, that he could lead on the issue and be buried by it.)

In Profiles In Courage, John F. Kennedy defined political courage as the willingness to stand up to your own party, or your own constituents, in the name of principle. That is the hardest thing for a political leader to do. The coinage of leadership has become so debated that we almost take for granted the expedient response. But Angela Merkel has shown that it need not be so.


James Traub is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy, a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.

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