Are Germany’s open-border policies, a result of its post-war guilt, to blame for Brexit?
Hans-Georg Moeller says Germany’s unique exercise of guilt acknowledgment has been central to establishing a transnational European Union, but this well-intentioned desire to lead Europe might instead bring havoc
The reasons for the Brexit vote are complex. However, it is clear that frustration about immigration played a major role. This begs the question: why does immigration bother so many people in Britain? Why now, when the UK had already been dealing rather well with it for decades? The country could even be regarded as a model for the transition from a traditional nation state to a multicultural society – so why now all the fuss?
An all-too-easy answer is that a breaking point was reached. But no evidence points to such a crisis: living standards have not drastically fallen and race relations are surprisingly stable despite the menace of Islamist terrorism. The problem is not immigration as such, but rather that recent immigration was perceived as externally imposed. It appeared to be different from the “home-grown” immigration which had resulted from the UK’s colonial past. Many British people – and among them many with immigrant backgrounds – felt that they were no longer in control of their country. This perception is not without basis.
The principle of free movement for all European Union citizens brought large-scale internal migration from poorer Eastern European countries into the UK. This migration stream, it seemed, was about to be exacerbated by the EU’s initial open-border response to the Syrian refugee crisis. This response had transformed the refugee crisis into a larger migration crisis. An already existing immigration flow from Africa and Asia joined the Syrian refugees who were suddenly invited into the EU by the new “welcome culture” proudly announced by Germany. This response, it was feared, lured millions with little education or professional skills into joining already tight labour markets and welfare queues, and it threatened to “Islamise” Europe at a time when a violent Islamism had declared war on Western civilisation. Such sentiments were crucial for the success of the Leave campaign in the UK, which may inspire other countries to look for ways out of the EU as well. Thus, the EU is in danger of self-destruction because of its migration policies. But who is responsible for these, and why?
The search for an answer leads to the heart of Europe: to Germany. Germany’s pro-immigration stance has its roots in history. After its unsuccessful attempt to conquer Europe and subject it to Nazi rule, the country underwent a unique exercise of guilt acknowledgment. It accepted responsibility for its crimes and promised to cleanse itself of all evils, most of all nationalism. Germany developed a paradoxical “inverted nationalism” which derives its pride from a confession of guilt and a commitment to anti-nationalism. Germany’s efforts were central to establishing a transnational EU. So far, so good. However, recent developments have shown that if the EU allows itself to be guided by Germany’s radical moralism alone, it may lose sight of important realities on the ground. In a different way, a German desire to lead Europe might once more bring havoc to it.
Chancellor Angela Merkel invented the European open-border policy in continuation of German anti-nationalist sentiments. This promised her a place in history for completing the national transformation from evil to good. While morality pretends not to be guided by self-interest, the opposite is often the case. German migration policies may have enabled Germans to feel good about themselves again, and perhaps superior to others, but they did not do much good for Europe. Now, the spectre of the downfall of the most worthwhile project of a transnational Europe has arisen. What is more, unrealistic migration policies have already failed masses of migrants stranded in the EU without jobs and without their families. And they failed many others, who were stopped halfway and are now supposed to find their way back home.
Migration is a complex issue; dealing with it on the basis of an urge for moral self-purification is not necessarily the best approach. Germany would perhaps be well advised to give up trying to shape Europe in its own image. The pursuit of overcoming one’s guilt may only give rise to guilt of a different sort.
Dr Hans-Georg Moeller, a German citizen, is a professor of philosophy and programme coordinator in philosophy and religious studies at the University of Macau