Commentary on global affairs and where they may be headed

Posts tagged ‘Germany’

Media Interest in Refugees May Have Peaked … the Influx Hasn’t

Children are still paying with their lives trying to get to the EU, but it’s no longer front page news.

Since the beginning of last month when the photograph of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish beach shocked Europeans – public and politicians alike – into grasping the plight of the thousands of refugees on the move from Syria, Afghanistan, Sudan and elsewhere in Africa, more than 40 more children have died.

Men and women are also continuing to lose their lives.

In total, the International Organisation for Migration estimates 3,000 people have died so far this year and the influx is not expected to slow any time soon despite the onset of winter, which will make the trek even more dangerous.

But much of the media has moved on to other stories and the refugees have slipped out of the headlines and down running orders as journalists focus on what they see as fresher news.

The issue briefly returned to the headlines as EU leaders met to agree a grand bargain with Turkey of more aid and visa liberalisation for Turks in exchange for better control of the refugee flow, but the reporting was focused more on the political deal-making than the continuing plight of the refugees.

When challenged, the argument you’ll hear in newsrooms will be that the refugee flows aren’t really news anymore.

It is a common failing. Unable to come up with fresh angles on a story, editors tend to move on and forget to follow up on stories only a few weeks before they couldn’t seem to get enough of.

With the direct intervention of Russia in the war in Syria at the end of September catching many off guard, including most journalists and commentators, the media returned its attention to what is happening on the battlefield.

The people fleeing the conflict have been of less interest, which is an odd omission given the fact that Russia’s military action backing a new government offensive and the response of the US and Saudi Arabia of increasing support for the rebels only makes it likely even more people will flee and add to the refugee flow.

Missing the obvious, with a few exceptions, media outlets are failing to draw their readers’ and audiences’ attention to the link between the man-made humanitarian catastrophe that is the Syrian civil war, the failure of many European states to contribute adequately to the aid operations for refugees in the neighbouring countries, and people making the decision to leave their life and livelihoods behind to seek refuge away from the bombs and bullets.

So should more of the media have stayed with the story?

While most journalists insist they are not campaigners and they are neutral reporters of events, editors in western countries make much of their role as the fourth estate; the guardians of democracy.

But a democracy can only be healthy when citizens – the voters – are well informed about the key issues their political representatives are grappling with.

The refugee influx is one such issue. The numbers are unprecedented in most Europeans’ lifetimes – not since the aftermath of World War Two has the continent seen so many people on the move.

And although many ordinary Europeans, aid organisations and governments have been trying to help the people arriving by road and by sea, we have also witnessed the less noble side of many on the continent who have resorted to spreading rumour and misinformation for their own ends.

The Hungarian government went as far as to stir up anti-refugee sentiment by stuffing scaremongering leaflets through their citizens’ letterboxes. British tabloids have conflated the people seeking asylum with economic migrants to burnish their attacks on the government over immigration. Even in Germany, which along with Sweden has stood out as one of the most sympathetic countries, far right extremists have attacked refugee reception centres.

If European publics are ill-informed about who the refugees are and why they are coming – that they are ordinary people like themselves who’ve been forced to flee their homes – they are less likely to support decisions made by politicians to share the burden of offering asylum and to increase aid to the chronically underfunded relief operation supporting people displaced by conflict.

Charities and NGOs will also find it harder to raise money for the same cause and that in turn could well mean more people attempting the journey to Europe.

Given the refugees are going to keep on coming for the foreseeable future and governments are already struggling to cope with the numbers, the media will be failing in their role as the fourth estate and failing their readers and audiences if they continue to let their interest in the story fade.

If they think their readers and audiences are zoning out, journalists need to find fresh ways to report and explain the whys and wherefores of the influx and to hold politicians to account for the way they have dealt with both the refugees arriving and the reasons they are fleeing their homes.

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Europe’s migrants: urgency and empathy needed

The 71 migrants thought to be Syrians – among them four children – found suffocated to death in a truck in Austria have added to the terrible toll of more than 2,400 people the UN says have drowned in the Mediterranean so far this year trying to get to the EU.

Events around Europe the day the bodies in the lorry were discovered serve to highlight both the sluggish and mean-spirited reaction in Europe to the thousands of people fleeing conflict and repression in the Middle East and Africa.

German Chancellor Merkel and EU Foreign Policy Chief Mogherini were holding a summit in Vienna with leaders from Austria, Greece, Italy and the Western Balkans when news of the gruesome discovery came through.

The meeting was already intended largely to discuss how to cope with the numbers of migrants passing through the region on their way to the EU. And while the expressions of shock from the leaders present were no doubt sincere, the fact the meeting was being held in late August when the flow of migrants began several months ago speaks volumes for the lack of urgency with which EU leaders have addressed the migration crisis.

It’s two months since they agreed in principle – with the exception of the UK, Hungary and Denmark – to share the burden of resettling asylum seekers. But as the numbers of migrants – and the number of deaths – has continued to climb, governments have continued to haggle over the details.

To her credit, Angela Merkel does now seem to have got the message. She has recently condemned as “shameful” an attack on a refugee centre in her own country and reacted to news of the latest deaths by saying “this reminds us that we in Europe need to tackle the problem quickly and find solutions in the spirit of solidarity”.

But will other European leaders follow suit?

In the UK, the Prime Minister, David Cameron, has faced criticism for using inflammatory language talking of “a swarm of people” trying to reach the UK and his Foreign Secretary, Phillip Hammond, said migrants were “marauding” around the continent.

This is despite the fact the numbers trying to get to Britain are far lower than those trying to get to Germany – for every one Syrian applying for asylum in the UK, Germany receives 27 applications.

But the political and media climate in several countries shows it is not just governments that are falling short.

The same day the 71 bodies were discovered, the UK media was full of negative headlines criticising the government for failing to control immigration.

In his first term, responding to pressure from the press and opinion polls showing increasing public concern over immigration, Cameron promised to cut net immigration to under 100,000 a year. But the latest figures show his government is still a long way from that target. Net immigration has reached   330,000 and one in eight people now living in Britain was born outside the country.

Many journalists tend to conflate asylum-seekers and other migrants and the tone and emphasis of much of the coverage of migration this summer, especially since the disruption to cross channel links caused by migrants at Calais trying to get to Britain, has been – to put it politely – lacking in empathy.

In many reports you could be forgiven for forgetting many of these migrants are fellow human beings who have risked their lives to escape Syria, Iraq, Eritrea or Sudan and make their way to Europe to seek sanctuary.

Britain isn’t the only country where the politicians and journalists are neglecting the better angels of their nature.

Hungary, which is on the main migrant land route, has built a – largely ineffectual – fence to keep asylum seekers out. Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, didn’t even bother to go the Vienna meeting and his party responded to the discovery of the bodies in the truck, which was registered in Hungary, by laying the blame on the EU.

Unless Europe finds the political will and humanity to respond urgently and on the necessary scale to the flow of migrants, more people are going to end up dying.

But with the penny having seemingly dropped with Chancellor Merkel, Berlin appears to have decided it now has to act.

Germany is after all the preferred destination of most of the migrants with the country reportedly expecting up to 800,000 this year alone.

The country has also experienced mass influxes before in living memory.

In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War and the Nazis’ depredations in Eastern Europe, millions of ethnic Germans fled or were expelled from the region and were given refuge in their ancestral homeland. So, perhaps Germans are better able to feel sympathy for those fleeing conflict and oppression today.

Senior EU officials are also expressing optimism member states’ resistance to agreeing to accept quotas of asylum seekers is weakening as the death toll mounts.

We will see if the combination of German leadership and tragic news will galvanise other EU leaders and their citizens to respond to the needs of the moment with greater generosity and urgency.

Europe: more than fraying at the edges

The EU is teetering on the brink of Grexit as the two sides continue to play a momentous game of chicken.

On Sunday, Greeks will be voting in their referendum on whether or not to accept the conditions the EU and IMF have put on giving the country another bailout – and the polls are so finely balanced it’s too close to call.

Germany’s Chancellor Merkel has said no one should tell the Greeks how to vote, but then went on to make clear a “no” means Greece leaving the Euro, so no pressure there then.

Greece’s anti-austerity government on the other hand is pushing for that “no” arguing it will strengthen their negotiating hand. Prime Minister Tsipras seems to be banking on fear of the unpredictable effects of Grexit to force the rest of the Eurozone back to the table.

There has been much talk of Europe fraying at the edges if Greece is forced out of the Euro with some even suggesting Athens will be end up leaving the EU altogether.

But that risks understating the depth of the crisis facing the Union.

What is happening with Greece is a symptom of something that’s eating away at the EU’s very foundations and the glue that binds the 28 nations together is in danger of dissolving.

You have to go back and ask yourself why Europeans created their unique organisation in the first place.

Before 1945, the people of the continent had spent centuries killing each other in the name of king, then country and – in some cases – both and that’s not to mention the wars of religion.

After the devastation and slaughter of World War Two, European leaders – especially in France and Germany – finally woke up to the fact that there must be a better of doing things and started building what has now become the European Union by creating a common market for coal and steel which quickly became the European Economic Community.

In so doing they were appealing to enlightened economic self-interest, but behind the project there was a more altruistic impulse too – to end the threat of war between Europeans by appealing to a sense of solidarity. The idea that what Europeans have in common is much more important than what divides them.

And like Araldite, the glue holding the EU together needs two elements to make a strong bond – that combination of enlightened self-interest and solidarity.

It’s this that has brought many benefits like the ability to live and work anywhere in the EU, something I took advantage of in the early 80s when I left recession-hit Britain to work in Italy – how things have changed, as you see when ordering your cappuccino or latte in a London coffee bar.

But the Europe-wide economic crisis of recent years has chipped away at the sense of solidarity underpinning the EU.

The Greek debt saga has both exposed and fuelled this.

Basically, the German government is unwilling to ask its taxpayers to write off the loans they’ve made to Greece to keep it afloat while it tries to find a way to pay its debts, a form of solidarity that’s called fiscal transfer in economist-speak.

And you can understand why Germans wouldn’t want to do this. After all, Greece has been living beyond its means for years and when borrowing became easier after it joined the Euro because of lower interest rates, Athens continued splurging.

On the other hand, German and other banks were happy to lend to Greece knowing it had a dodgy credit history. This is a country that’s struggled to remain solvent ever since independence in 1832.

It’s also important to point out that the Greek bailout in 2010 was also a bail out for those banks as EU governments, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund basically took on the Greek debt.

But this is a complex argument the German government for one is unwilling to make to its people, so they haven’t and instead blamed it all on profligate Greeks. So it’s not just the usual suspects of the nationalist and populist right like UKIP and Front National who are responsible.

Yet EU solidarity is not just being undermined by the Greek debt crisis

The influx of thousands of migrants crossing the Mediterranean from North Africa is also playing its part.

They are making for the nearest EU countries, mainly Italy and – by unfortunate coincidence – Greece, and they are struggling to cope with the numbers. The European Commission came up with a plan for all 28 countries to relieve the burden on Rome and Athens. After acrimonious talks, where calls for solidarity and responsibility were bandied about, most countries agreed to take a share of asylum-seekers, but some, including Britain, Denmark and Hungary, refused to play ball.

According to some in the room, Italy’s Prime Minister Renzi didn’t mince his words exclaiming at one point: “If this is your idea of Europe, you can keep it. Either there is solidarity, or you don’t waste our time”.

Which kind of sums it up.

If Europeans don’t rediscover the balance between self-interest and solidarity soon, the EU faces an existential threat at its core, which will make external challenges like a resurgent Russia and spill over from chaos in the Arab world look like local difficulties.

 

Beware of Greeks …

A recent re-watching of the movie ‘Troy” got me thinking about the stand off over debt between the modern Greeks and the EU.

The film portrays the Greeks as a vainglorious bunch who have to resort to deceit to take and sack Troy.

Whether or not this is a misreading of Homer, I was left asking myself why, if the Trojans are so guilty of hubris and fated to get their comeuppance, the Greeks needed to employ tricks to win.

But maybe that is the way the Greeks are themselves fated to be portrayed.

Some commentary this week has characterised Greek Prime Minister Tsipras’s trip to Moscow as a ploy to put pressure on the rest of the EU to be more receptive to demands to renegotiate his country’s bailout.

The timing of the visit around Orthodox Easter was a gesture to the historic links between Greece and Russia and an unwelcome reminder to Germany in particular that Athens could prove awkward for the EU beyond wanting to ease its debt burden at Berlin’s expense.

But, however justified Mr Tsipras may be in undertaking his Russian visit or calling for Germany to pay reparations for its World War Two occupation of Greece, he may be underestimating the long pedigree of distrust with which his country is perceived going back to the story of Troy and long pedigree of the adage “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts”.

Greece’s EU partners are in no mood to give the Syriza-led government in Athens a win in the debt talks because they have much to lose – whether they are creditor governments like Germany or debtor governments like Spain’s which has implemented deep spending cuts and faces a similarly popular anti-austerity party, Podemos, in elections later this year.

By extension, is it going too far – as this piece does – to suggest that it is in the interest of the supporters of austerity that Syriza fail, and be seen to fail, to deliver on its promise to the Greek electorate, so voters elsewhere don’t follow their example?

If this is so, it isn’t the first time Greece has been held up as a negative example to keep others in line.

In the Italian historian Claudio Pavone’s epic account of the 1943-45 partisan war against the German occupation and its client fascist republican regime in northern Italy, Una guerra civile, he argues the Greek experience was used effectively as a negative example to the Italian resistance.

In Greece, the communist-led resistance against German occupation mutated into a civil war after the Nazi withdrawal in 1944 and fighting broke out between the communists and British forces backing the new government in Athens.

In Italy, the Communists were also a leading force in the resistance, but despite their admiration for their Greek comrades, they didn’t come to blows with the British, Americans and the forces of the new royalist Italian government who were advancing north to push the Germans out of Italy. One of things that held them back was the prospect of civil war “a la Grecque” being used as an effective deterrent by the more right-wing resistance groups.

And the deterrence of the Greek experience seems to retain its potency today.

The brinkmanship being employed by Mr Tsipras and his Syriza colleagues doesn’t seem to be working as the rest of the Eurozone has remained united – and is indulging in brinkmanship of its own, giving Athens six days to come up with acceptable proposals for an extension of funding.

Financial leverage has been added to diplomatic pressure with the European Central Bank restricting the ability of Greece to raise emergency cash while international investors and wealthy Greeks withdraw their money.

In a few short months, things have moved from a position under the previous conservative New Democracy government, which was being praised for restoring confidence in the Greek economy, to the current financial crisis facing the left-wing Syriza administration.

So it looks like the odds are stacked against Athens in the coming days as it plays a hand weakened not only by the mismanagement of Greece’s finances in recent years, but also the historically and culturally ingrained distrust of its European partners.

Germany: risking its post WW2 modest image for little gain

When it came to foreign policy, the late Chinese leader, Deng Xiaoping, advised his countrymen to “keep a low profile and achieve something” by which he meant concentrate on the economy and avoid getting involved in disputes.

This week has raised the question – should Germany’s leaders heed Deng’s advice?

On Monday, Chancellor Merkel was in Japan and chose to issue her hosts some of her own advice in dealing with the legacy of Tokyo’s conduct in World War 2 which is still souring relations with its neighbours, especially China and South Korea.

Ms Merkel’s speech reminded us how much Germans pride themselves on coming to terms with the Nazis’ wartime record and reconciling with their neighbours.

As speculation grows that Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, may use the 70th anniversary of the end of the war to water down previous Japanese apologies to its neighbours, Ms Merkel took it upon herself to urge the Japanese to follow Germany’s example.

Her hosts were polite and did not give away how they felt about Chancellor Merkel’s comments, but shortly after her speech events back home suggest it may have been wiser to avoid the risk of hubris and keep out of the debate about Japan’s wartime past.

On Wednesday, the very public row between Berlin and Athens over debt escalated with a reminder that perhaps Germany’s reconciliation with the victims of Nazi aggression has not been as successful as it thinks.

The new Greek government is trying to renegotiate the terms of its debt to the rest of the EU and IMF and wants to end the 2010 bailout – largely funded by Berlin – negotiated by its predecessor during the Eurocrisis which mandates economic austerity that Athens says kills any chance for growth.

German Finance Minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, has been using insultingly undiplomatic language to tell his Greek counterpart – with an eye to his own taxpayers – that Berlin has been generous enough already and will not countenance further debt forgiveness.

The Greek Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, responded – also with an eye to his political supporters – by reviving claims that Berlin pay reparations for Germany’s harsh wartime occupation.

But instead of trying to emolliate Athens, as German governments of the past might have, the response of Chancellor Merkel’s spokesperson, Steffen Seibert, was dismissive “the question of reparations and compensation is legally and politically closed”.

It is no secret to anyone in Europe that the Eurocrisis means Germany is now the continent’s undisputed political as well as economic leader. Berlin’s traditional policy of hiding its economic strength by letting France take the political lead is no longer viable given current French weakness.

It is also obvious when talking privately to Germans born since 1945 that they are increasingly tired of being reminded of what their grandparents’ generation did and feel others use the Nazi past to justify freeloading on their generosity.

But Germany is now risking undermining its newfound leadership by appearing arrogant and overplaying its hand.

It is not just the Greeks who are beginning to chafe at Berlin’s attitude. There is growing anti-German sentiment in Italy too. Outside the EU, Germany has taken the lead role in pressurising Serbia to accept the secession of Kosovo reviving many Serbs’ historical distrust and resentment of Berlin’s wartime record.

The EU works by consensus and goodwill to build common interests and Germany has prospered since 1945 by pooling sovereignty with its former enemies and appearing unthreatening.

But circumstances change and now demand Berlin take a more active leadership role in Europe because it is the only country economically strong enough to bail out its partners and save the Euro.

However, it is one thing to lead by force majeure and quite another to take people with you.

Germany and the rest of EU face tough enough challenges trying to revive economic growth and ensure the Euro has a future.

If Berlin abandons the modesty that has reassured the rest of the world it no longer harbours the desire to dominate and awakens the ghosts of the past by lecuring others and deliberately reminding its neighbours just how powerful it is, it will make the job of leadership even harder and risk undermining its newfound role before it takes root.

 

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