In a new essay for SPERI leading German political economist and sociologist Wolfgang Streeck analyses Britain’s vote to leave the EU. In his new paper ‘Exploding Europe: Germany, the Refugees and the British Vote to Leave‘ Streeck argues that Angela Merkel’s decision, exactly one year ago (September 4th), to open up Germany’s borders during Europe’s ‘refugee crisis’ of late summer 2015 was ‘without doubt a major force’ behind Brexit.
Professor Streeck is Director Emeritus at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies in Cologne. He argues that Germany’s decision to open its borders to the flow of refugees from the Middle East was an ‘immigration policy camouflaged as asylum and refugee policy’. He further argues that Merkel’s attempts to then ‘Europeanise’ the policy through the EU and impose a refugee quota system on member states, to which there was no alternative, must be seen as a contributing factor behind Brexit given that it occurred during a period of growing ‘anti-immigration resentment’ amongst British voters in the run-up to the referendum in June 2016.
Merkel’s response to the 2015 refugee crisis, Streeck states, was driven in part by a need to attract new workers to the German labour market to address their ageing population, but also to deflect attention away from Germany’s treatment of Greece and to claim the moral high ground by presenting a favourable contrast to the treatment of refugees at the ‘Jungle’ camp in France. He suggests that other EU leaders initially accepted the quota system and refugee policies attached to Germany’s ‘refugee-cum-immigration policy’ to do Merkel a favour ‘in the expectation of future repayment’. However he suggests that the subtleties of EU politics were not appreciated by British voters who ‘must have feared that at some stage [the policies and quotas] would have to be adopted by their country as well’. The Leave campaign’s powerful slogan ‘Take back control’ must be read to reflect a desire by British voters not to be subject to the same immigration policies.
“Looking across the Channel at the Continent, British voters may rightly have been afraid of being burdened with yet another quasi-constitutional, democratically unchangeable obligation unconditionally to open their borders and their labour markets, not just to immigrants from other, less prosperous EU member countries but also to whoever would demand entry as an asylum seeker or refugee. The prospect of having to comply with the way Germany, with its particular political, demographic and labour market situation, had chosen to interpret international law, subject to reinterpretation whenever required by changing German economic and political interests, was without doubt a major force behind the historical blow to European integration, as we know it, that was Brexit.”
Streeck further contends that Germany’s actions have ended ‘European integration as we know it’ and that over the last year in the wake of terror attacks in Europe, growing anti-immigrant sentiment across Europe and Brexit ‘the German government and its extended machinery in Brussels have lost all authority over member countries’ refugee policies, as a result of which these are now effectively re-nationalised’.
Download SPERI Paper No. 31: Exploding Europe: Germany, the Refugees and the British Vote to Leave
Angela Merkel ‘boosted Brexit campaign’
German political economist argues Merkel’s refugee policy was driven by domestic concerns.