Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union suffered dramatically in state elections in Germany last weekend. The German chancellor’s party received a brutal admonishment from voters, who concurrently gave startlingly strong support to a far-right, anti-immigrant party that is almost brand new to the scene.
The election was a referendum, to a large extent, on Merkel’s liberal approach to refugees from the Middle East. Last year, 1.1 million refugees streamed into Germany after often perilous journeys from the eastern Mediterranean. At the current rate, this year could see even more arrive unless, as some even in Merkel’s own coalition argue, border controls are imposed.
Still, there is no question that Germans – and everyone else on the continent – are confounded by the challenges created by refugees flowing in from Syria, Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East. Merkel is in the process of negotiating with Turkey a cash deal that would see Turkey offer an alternative destination for those set on Europe. Yet even that would not allay all the concerns among Europeans and others in the West.
Are there potential terrorists among the millions of people on the move? It would be a foolhardy terror leader who would miss the opportunity to plant some agents in the West when an opportunity so ripe as the current porous borders presents itself, so almost certainly. But terrorists will find their marks even if it is not so convenient – and many of the perpetrators of European terror in recent years have legitimately been in the countries they attacked. Some were even citizens. The seriousness of this potential should not be diminished, but neither should we lull ourselves into believing that stanching the refugee flow would eliminate the terror problem.
As we have noted previously, more prevalent dangers may come in the form of some refugees’ attitudes and approaches to women and minorities. Violence (most notably a huge number of sexual assaults on New Year’s Eve) and other anti-social behaviors being reported suggest that there will be a serious challenge integrating some refugees into societies where expectations of women’s and men’s behaviors are radically different than in Syria and Iraq.
Then there are the economic realities, which have been remarkably glossed over. Before 9/11, opponents of admitting immigrants and refugees could be depended upon to raise fears of unemployment and abuse of social services. Thanks to the real or inflated threat of Islamist terror, economics seems to have been eclipsed. Even Donald Trump, whose campaign plays on every imaginable fear of difference or diversity, has limited his hate-fueled anti-Muslim rhetoric almost exclusively to the terror motif. In his mind, evidently, Mexicans take jobs, Muslims are terrorists.
Yet neither Trump’s xenophobia nor Merkel’s open-handedness will solve the underlying problems of war and despair that drive people to risk their lives to reach Europe or the Americas. And even if that crisis were to be solved which, despite U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts, seems remote, we need to remind ourselves of a larger issue still.
We are one world. A country may once have been able to close its borders and seal itself off from the rest of humankind. The 20th-century fate of the Jews of Europe is the most memorable reminder that this was once true. But no more. We can set policies and even build walls, but we are part of an irrevocably interconnected and interdependent world. Efforts to stop the advance of this reality will ultimately be futile, even if they were desirable.
We need to find a way to get along. There could hardly be a more simplistic statement, but it is nonetheless true. We need to find ways to coexist inter-culturally and intra-culturally. With those who are coming to Europe and North America, we need to engage in a deep and committed dialogue to find common ground and we must not be afraid, as Canadians so often are, of confronting cultural differences, because ignoring them will cause problems, not solve them.