Immigration/Social Policy

The refugee crisis as a divisive issue for EU and national leaders: Germany’s leadership role, lessons for Canada?

Sept 11, 2015 - by Oliver Schmidtke, Director of the Centre for Global Studies at the University of Victoria

While European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has just announced that Europe’s response to the refugee crisis will be "swift, determined and comprehensive", the EU member states are far from agreeing on a common approach. Even the proposal to distribute close to 160.000 refugees across the continent with binding quotas is anything but agreed upon. In particular Central Eastern European countries have been clear about their refusal of taking in any refugees as part of a pan-European distribution scheme. 


Similarly, individual nation-states have taken very different approaches to addressing the crisis: those countries that are the first destination for most refugees like Greece or Italy struggle to find the infrastructure and funding for accommodating the hundreds that come every day. Countries like Hungary or Denmark do everything to deter more refugees to reach their territory, even if this means building a barbed wired fence in the south of Hungary to protect the external border of the EU. The UK has recently agreed on timid steps to accept more migrants. Next to Sweden Germany stands out with a view to chancellor Merkel’s promise to provide every genuine refugee with asylum and take in at least 800.000 from war-torn Syria in 2015.

What accounts for such different approaches across Europe? As the German case demonstrates, the role of the civil society and political elite is of critical importance. After the shocking image of Aylan Kurdi the Syrian boy whose body washed up on the beach, German chancellor Merkel had to take a position after months of hesitation: to side with those voices that ask for more aggressive border controls and a rejection of more refugees or to join those who have mobilized in civil society to welcome refugees with compassion and an outpouring of generosity. Angela Merkel’s decision opt for the latter has been instrumental in changing the public mood in Germany, marginalizing the anti-immigrant extremists and encouraging those who want to support refugees. This leadership role of the political elite and civil society might be a story of interest to Canadians who feel that the government is not doing enough to address the refugee crisis.


Dr. Oliver Schmidtke is the Director of the Centre for Global Studies and Professor in Political Science at the University of Victoria. He is also part of a pan-Canada network of experts working on European policy issues, the Strategic Knowledge Cluster Canada-Europe Transatlantic Dialogue.