Mother of all refugees


This is a translation of an article I wrote for Cicero online, Berlin

It was a good day for the mother of all refugees. Her raspberry coloured blazer worked well with her hopeful mood: „It is an important signal that we collected six billion Dollars today for 2016 and eleven billion in total for the next years“, she said at the end of a „Supporting Syria“ conference this past Thursday in London: „This money will help the refugees who have suffered so much.“

The message was clear. The International Community has understood that Syrias neighbouring countries need a lot more support are they to keep the refugees from escaping en masse to Europe. After five years of civil war half of the 21 million Syrians have lost their home. Four and a half million have become refugees outside Syria according to the UN. The donor conference raised money for specific programs for job creation and schools in the region.

Angela Merkel seemed to feel comfortable, almost liberated among the other organizers. At home the multi tasking chancellor of Germany is harshly criitized for her generous refugees policies. On the international stage however she gets the respect she deserves for fighting several wars at once. Her London appearance made this obvious in various aspects.

It was a colourful show of donors who pledged at the London conference. France's foreign minister Laurent Fabius dutifully gave a billion Euros to the Syria programs but he trembled with rage over Russia’s bombing campaign of Aleppo this week. The Syrian city has been held by rebels – but not only by the forces of common enemy ISIS or al-Nusra. Aleppo was a strong hold of the anti-Assad rebels the Western powers would like to work with: „We cannot negotiate a peaceful solution, while Aleppo is being bombed“, Fabius cried out. The peace negotiations in Geneva had collapsed the evening before.

Contrary to Fabius the German chancellor focused on raising money. At the end, it will not be the French foreign minister who will need to sit down with the Russian president Vladimir Putin to discuss reasonable policies concerning the Syria crisis. It will be her. Merkel and Putin are not close, but the Russian autocrat tends to have more respect for her than for other European leaders.

Partly this is due to Germany’s size. As the biggest member state of the European Union Angela Merkel pledged also the biggest amount of money: 2,3 billion Euros for the coming years. Without it the donor summit would not have been a success. Now it can be called the beginning of a Marshall plan for the region.

But also the smaller countries chipped in: Denmark for example pledged 100 million Euros, for a small country of 6 million quite a big sum. Although one German participant quipped: „Do they take this from the money they took away from the refugees?“

The Austrian Prime Minister Werner Faymann also managed a gaffe. He pledged 60 million Euros for the next years. He added his hope that the money would be „well invested“ as it might encourage the refugees „not to take the dangerous route to Europe“. This sounded small minded in every respect.

Austria has at least taken almost as many refugees than Germany in relative terms. Unlike Great Britain. David Cameron only allows 20.000 refugees in till 2020. About every additional unaccompanied child there are endless battles being fought between NGOs and the government. The British Prime minister therefore showed generosity on the money front and pledged 1,5 billion Euros till 2020.

Angela Merkel looked good in comparision. Because of her much discussed open door policy Germany has not only taken the most refugees with one million in 2015, the country also pays the most for keeping the rest of the refugees in the region. She has been called many things in the past years, but when the day comes Angela Merkel will not be remembered as a narrow minded nationalist.

She looks tired after these last months of constant haggling with her critics at home and her partners on the international stage. Dark shadows sit under her eyes and deep wrinkles around her mouth. But next to her youthful plum 49 year old co-host David Cameron the 61 year old Angela Merkel was clearly the center of the conference. She radiated quiet authority.

Off stage the two leaders had to discuss the other pressing matter: Brexit and how to prevent it. As Cameron has promised his people a EU referendum about the question if to leave or to stay n the EU, he is now negotiating a reform package which he thinks will make it worth while staying in the EU. There is already a deal with Brussels which Cameron hopes to sign with the other 27 heads of state at the next EU-summit on February 18th. If this works out, he will call a referendum for June 23rd.

The deal is a lot weaker than what Cameron wanted to achieve. He had called for a treaty change and a limit to EU migration. A phone call to Angela Merkel in Berlin ended these attempts to undermine a core value of the European Union – the free movement of workers. Merkel is Cameron’s corrective. And she is his most important ally at the same time. Both are conservatives who wish for budget discipline. Also, Britain is the military power that Germany does not wish to have for historical reasons. The EU needs some strong military nations to back up the soft diplomacy it specializes in. If Britain leaves, only France would be left.

Merkel’s interest in keeping Britain in the EU is therefore strong. The deal Cameron got is a watered down version of what he promised to achieve. It will give him an „emergency break“ which will limit EU immigration if the social system is deemed too strained. It will be, however, not decided by a member state if this is the case. The EU commission decides. Cameron’s own EU-skeptics are not convinced by the deal. And the Polish government opposes it, too. And who will help Cameron to convince the other heads of state that this deal for Britain is good for all?

When the British prime minister turned to the German chancellor at the end of the "Supporting Syria" conference and said „Thank you, Angela“, he did not only mean her support for the Syrian refugees.

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© 2018 Tessa Szyszkowitz