The limits of solidarity

Last year’s global displacement crisis has shaken Germany’s political-ethical coordinates to the core and changed the country as a whole – its identity, its role within Europe and not least its political discourse. At the core of current debates is one question: What is our understanding of solidarity?

We all remember: over a year ago thousands of refugees arrived at Europe’s borders. They came mostly from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Eritrea, Nigeria, Somalia and the Maghreb states.

Europe was ill-prepared to shelter so many people. Most European governments were also not willed to do so. For weeks, thousands of refugees waited in states at the south-eastern border of the European Union, enduring chaotic and undignified conditions. When the situation escalated dramatically – especially in Hungary – the German government finally decided to open its borders to the refugees (primarily in response to pressure from Hungary’s prime minister Victor Orbán). In support of those that welcomed the move, Angela Merkel pronounced the now famous words: ‚We can manage!‘ (Wir schaffen das).

The decision to open the borders marked the beginning of the ’summer of migration‘. Over a thousand refugees arrived in Germany every day. By the end of the year they totalled around one million.

Initially, the refugees‘ were greeted by cheering crowds at main stations and border crossings. They received water, cookies and toys. Thousands of helpers donated money, distributed meals, taught German or housed refugees. This ‚culture of welcome‘ stemmed from heartfelt sympathy for those who had suffered so much and travelled for so long. The atmosphere was compared to the colourful, friendly patriotism during the soccer world cup in Germany in 2006.

But when people continued to arrive and things got increasingly out of hand, criticism became louder and harsher. The decision to open the borders was even declared to have been illegal. Agitation against Merkel’s policy went hand in hand with brutal violence: in 2015, more than 1000 attacks on accommodation for refugees were registered. Fearing a further radicalization on the Right, the European states decided in late summer 2015 to restore border controls and introduce entry restrictions.

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