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How the world sees Germany

Kathleen SchusterAugust 23, 2016

Berlin's refugee policies made headlines around the globe in 2015, and the world has been watching ever since. Kathleen Schuster looks at how the crisis has shaped Germany's reputation abroad.

Deutschland Flüchtling macht Selfie mit Merkel in Berlin-Spandau
Image: Reuters/F. Bensch

A year has passed since Germany opened its doors to hundreds of thousands of refugees and Chancellor Angela Merkel uttered her famous mantra - "Wir schaffen das," or "We can do this."

Her critics at home have grown louder over the past year with proof that migrants have overburdened the system, right-wing violence has worsened and Islamist terrorism has finally arrived.

But how has the refugee crisis impacted Germany's international reputation as a steadfast ally, an economic powerhouse and a country with a troubled history?

Finally, a little less European 'hypocrisy'

Europe watched the refugee crisis slowly heat up over several years as unrest and dire poverty in the Middle East, Central Asia and Africa drove people to desperate measures in search of safe haven. Summer 2015 was the boiling point.

Regular reports of migrant deaths at sea and on land combined with Hungary's violations of refugee rights prompted Germany, in coordination with Austria, to suspend Dublin Regulations for Syrian refugees last August. The move freed Syrians from the asylum process in their EU country of entry; it was also viewed as a welcome sign to refugees everywhere.

Germany's reputation subsequently improved across the Middle East. According to Mehran Kamrava, who heads the Center for International and Regional Studies at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service in Qatar, European countries are often considered hypocrites who lecture the Middle East about human rights.

Welcoming refugees and migrants "blunted" the hypocrisy argument, at least for Germany, Kamrava told DW.

Flüchtlinge auf der Autobahn Richtung Österreich
Refugees head from Hungary to the Austrian border - scenes like this captured world headlines last summerImage: picture-alliance/dpa/B. Roessler

But Ibrahim Awad, who heads the Center of Refugee and Migration Studies at the American University of Cairo, emphasizes that there are "those who think that Europe is making too much of the refugee flow to [the continent]."

Eleven million Syrians have been displaced since 2011, 6 million of them internally. Turkey is currently host to 2.5 million Syrians, followed by Lebanon (1.1 million), Jordan (635,000) and Egypt (117,000).

Longing for more

Germany's reputation also received a positive boost in Central Asia and Africa - regions which have contributed high numbers of refugees. Particularly in Africa, Berlin's refugee policies have broadly changed the collective perception of Europe.

Bildergalerie Flüchtlingsunterbringung in Deutschland
Many refugees in Germany come EritreaImage: imago/epd

"The fortress Europe idea has always been that Europe will do everything to keep migrants out," Liesl Louw-Vaudran, of the South Africa-based Institute for Security Studies, told DW. "This is a change from everything we've known up to now about migration and Europe."

But criticism of border closures touches on the long-standing wish that Europe – especially former colonizers who exploited Africa – do more for organized migration.

Louw-Vaudran adds, however, that African governments who support this argument "would never admit that they encourage migration as an income form."

Germany, the stabilizer

Germany's humanitarian gesture had two main effects on its reputation with its most important allies: it gained respect as a "moral authority" and further proved its leading role in the EU. Whether or not that is a positive development depends on the country.

China – which has fostered closer diplomatic relations with Merkel's governments – has viewed the decision by its most important EU trade partner with both admiration and hesitancy.

Beijing's main worry is the correlation between the refugee policy and weakened security, says Xuewu Gu of the Center for Global Studies at the University of Bonn. It considers Germany a key player in ensuring European cohesion and, thus, a stronger Europe that could help weaken US dominance.

Angela Merkel und Hillary Clinton beim 7. OSZE-Gipfel in Astana
Hillary Clinton, the possible next US president, worked with Merkel as Obama's Secretary of StateImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Hannibal

The Obama administration also views Berlin as its most reliable European partner at a time when the US president needs “the cohesion of the West to undergird a lot of policy actions that need to be taken,” says Cathryn Clüver, the director of Harvard's Future of Diplomacy Project.

Not only has Barack Obama praised Germany for "being on the right side of history," but the American public broadly appreciates the humanitarian gesture, seeing an overlap with its own migration past.

When it comes to the refugee deal with Turkey, though, China and US are skeptical. Gu says Beijing sees Merkel's push for the deal as "unwise."

The good, the bad and the Merkel of German leadership

To the world, Merkel is a fascinating politician whose name become synonymous with Germany. She is, for some, the quiet preacher's daughter with a conscience, the meticulous physicist, the cool "empress of Europe." To others, she's a power-drunk fool.

Her three governments have shaped Germany's reputation in the EU over the past decade. Facing national elections in 2017, her third time in office could be her last depending on developments in the refugee crisis.

The past year of migration, terrorism, right-wing sentiment, and the Brexit has drawn Berlin out as a multi-tasking crisis manager, to the chagrin of some and the pleasure of others.

Demonstration der rechtsextremen Partei Nationale Bewegung in Warschau
The refugee crisis has fueled far-right sentiment in EuropeImage: picture-alliance/dpa/J. Dabrowski

Economics researcher Anne-Laure Delatte says a German-centric EU poses larger questions about the effectiveness of the EU, underlining criticism of Merkel's perceived approach to various crises on the continent.

"We should not be talking about Germany making decisions for Europe. We should be talking about a group of countries making decisions for themselves," Delatte, who is affiliated with the French National Center for Scientific Research, told DW.

But there is an even bigger question, says Kalypso Nicolaidis, who heads international studies at Oxford University. Can the "reluctant leader" Germany reconcile itself with its international reputation as a powerhouse, a key international player and, still, find the appropriate tone given its Nazi past?

"If there is one country that is convinced that it is problematic to see the reemergence of a certain kind of Germany in Europe, it's Germany itself," says Nicolaidis.