The German election is coming in September and campaign season is finally beginning in earnest. German campaigns are not known for their vitriol, but it can be difficult to attract attention from voters when the two most popular parties (the centre-right CDU/ CSU and the centre-left SPD) are also coalition partners who have backed each other’s position on most major issues for years. The SPD is at a distinctive disadvantage: it’s been in government leadership for years as junior coalition partner to the CDU, so the two’s policies are seen as much the same, and the solid, inevitable-feeling lead of the CDU headed by Chancellor Angela Merkel makes it hard for voters to imagine something other than the status quo. At this point the question may be for the SPD, how can this election seem more like a contest of ideas and not a run-up to a foregone conclusion?
The first step was to get a new face. The Social Democrats were given a big boost when Martin Schulz, the popular two-time President of the European Parliament, announced his return to German politics as Chancellor candidate for the 2017 parliamentary elections. As seen in this Ipsos voter intention poll from the end of February 2017, the SPD appeared to have made significant ground on the CDU in the wake of Schulz’s announcement.
“Which party would you vote for, if next Sunday were the election?”
As can be seen from the latest poll from mid-July, this headwind appears to have disappeared, with the CDU consolidating an even stronger lead with gains from some of the smaller parties (such as AfD) as well. As the SPD has been seeing its momentum dissipate, Schulz has been trying to find ways to distance and differentiate his party from their coalition partners, and it appears that he has started to thinks that one of the best ways to do this is to take a bold stance on migration.
A European Solution
In late July Schulz traveled to Italy, where he visited a home for refugees in Catania and met with the Italian PM to discuss the “refugee crises.” At the same time he did a host of interviews on the subject, which some in the media hailed as a “swipe” at Angela Merkel.
If we don’t want a repeat of what we experienced in 2015 then things have to change.
But what kind of changes is Schulz actually proposing? Taking a look at his announced “solidarity” plan for refugee politics, its clear that Schulz still has his head at the EU level. Here are two main proposals:
Hit countries that refuse people seeking asylum in their pocketbooks.
The European Commission is currently pursuing infringement proceedings against three Visegrad states that have categorically refused to accept redistribution of people seeking asylum from Italy and Greece under a short-term plan, as we have previously explained in detail (see: Sympathy for the Visegrad Group?). Schulz and the SPD would go about convincing naysayers in a more direct way: states who don’t cooperate with EU-wide redistribution (or quotas) would lose access to EU funds. Those who do would receive compensation and benefits. This, Schulz writes, would be carried out through a “solidarity pact.”
In the Solidarity Pact, it must be clear that countries which refuse solidarity on important issues must face financial disadvantages and can no longer count on the full financial solidarity of Germany and the other countries. Solidarity is not a one-way street.
Naturally, as Chancellor of Germany Schulz would no longer have the position at the European Commission to effect such a plan directly. He could (and would) however be able to veto EU financial plans if such conditions aren’t met. Given the legal battles already underway with countries such as Slovakia and Hungary, this would set up a slightly more direct confrontation between Germany and countries rejecting redistribution plans. On the other hand, countries like Italy, Greece and Spain, who stand to benefit the most from such assistance, would likely support a more confrontative approach.
Create legal pathways to immigrate to Europe
Europe is an immigrant continent. In order to maintain our economic power, we are dependent on immigration, especially by well-qualified specialists. A European immigration law should create common rules for this. We urgently need an opportunity for regulated immigration.
Schulz argues that economic pressure and deaths at sea from people seeking asylum can be reduced if there are normal, legal pathways to immigrate to Europe. Speaking in Italy, he reportedly named some examples: “Canada has legal immigration, the United States has it, Latin America, Australia and New Zealand – they all have immigration rules.” This idea also isn’t new, but framed as a European solution raises the question of how, as Chancellor of Germany, Schulz could hope to bring about this massive policy shift. Would Germany first reframe its immigration policy more along the lines of Canada or the US, for example? Or would such a change only be welcomed on the European level?
Similarly, he suggests getting rid of the (EU-wide) Dublin regulation, which, among other things, allows for countries to send people seeking asylum back to the first European country of entry to have their application evaluated. Is Germany going to abandon Dublin first?
Can Schulz zero in on Germany when it comes to migration?
Its clear that what Schulz is proposing aims to tackle the issue of migration and asylum in the long term, on the European playing field. Tying European funding to willingness to participate in distribution scenarios, getting rid of the Dublin regulation, and starting a European wide legal immigration scheme are all hugely ambitious (and wildly controversial) goals, that moreover do not take place in the German domestic sphere. The future Chancellor of Germany plays a huge role in European policy formation, but decisions like these take years of hammering out details and forcing consensus, and do not hinge entirely on the suggestions of one country, no matter how large a role that country has played in the “refugee crises” in the past.
On the other hand, the issues of migration and asylum are inherently international, European issues. Its not incorrect to suggest that Germany can hardly effect changes on this subject alone. But without a domestic angle, these solutions feel aspirational and unrealistic. Angela Merkel is a well-known proponent of a European-wide approach to accepting refugees, and for all her clout very little progress has been made. Arguably, a European-wide solution is further away than ever.
Perhaps if Schulz really wants to stand out, he needs to suggest grounded, practical, German policies that have the potential to be realized in the short term. Reforming the German immigration system to provide more legal pathways to immigrate is a concrete example. In contrast to Merkel’s plodding style, some quick fixes might be in order if Schulz wants to regain momentum and convince voters that not every change requires waiting on Europe.