By Julian Barazi
Of all the crises and global events we have faced since the fall of communism, the crisis Europe is facing today is likely to have the deepest impact on our continent. The reasons for this are not only changes in Europe’s ethnic and religious composition, which numerous right wing populist parties fear, but also lead a shift in Europe’s balance of power, brought about in the long term by a more powerful Germany. Looking at the situation based on history, current events and likely future consequences, it becomes clear why other European countries would be wise to follow Germany’s lead on their intake of refugees.
To understand the impact of this new wave of refugee immigration, one has to look at the details of the history of refugees in Europe, and at Germany’s economic situation.
Refugees in Modern Germany
First, there is a general acceptance of refugees in Germany. Conversely to what some may argue, this is not caused by a desire to compensate for crimes committed in the past, but by two distinct reasons.
The first reason is a historical one: Numerous Germans were refugees themselves and many “foreign” refugees are well integrated today. After the end of World War Two, Germany’s size was reduced by a third, as about 12 to 13 million Germans were fleeing from the former German Empire and Central and Eastern Europe. In comparison, today’s total number of refugees worldwide is 14.4 million, a slightly higher figure than what Germany had to handle right after she lost the war. A second wave of refugees took place between East and West Germany – many East Germans fled to West Germany, most of them before the wall was built, but also afterwards.
Due to these historical experiences, many Germans today are aware of the refugees’ suffering. Even though no young Germans experienced fleeing themselves, most of them grew up hearing the stories of flight, rape, hunger and sometimes homelessness their grandparents went through. Also spectacular flights across the Berlin Wall are present in the minds of many Germans due to role in cinema and the history curricula.
Another wave of refugees, 350 000 this time, arrived during the breakup of Yugoslavia. Those who stayed are considered some of the best-integrated immigrants in Germany. This is mostly due to the facts that they came from a secular, multicultural society and were well educated. However, of the original refugees only 40 000 were allowed to stay, while the rest were sent back after the war, or finally left to the United States to successfully immigrate there.
This leads us to the second reason why Germans are willing to take in refugees:
Syria is very similar to Yugoslavia from a demographic point of view. It is a secular, multicultural country and about 40% of the Syrians arriving in Germany are University graduates. Considering the low birth rate, the number of open jobs for engineers and the lack of applicants for apprenticeships, which have been recurrent problems for the German economy, these educated young people, who are used to secularism and diversity are likely to integrate easily. They will of course temporarily be a burden for Germany’s finances, but in the medium term they will be a blessing to the economy’s productivity. In the long term they will assist Germany’s pension fund issues, which are under pressure due to the European Central Bank’s low interest rate, and the country’s aging population.
Furthermore, both waves of refugees, following World War Two and Yugoslavia’s breakup were received during difficult times. The first being right after World War Two and the second being right after the reunification of Germany. In both situations Germany’s economy was heavily burdened, but still succeeded in integrating refugees. Considering the healthy economic situation in Germany today, this bodes well for the likelihood of successful integration of the current wave of refugees.
Yet, currently the Bavarian-Austrian border is closed and some German ministers are proposing stricter measures, mostly because of pressure by the populist CSU (the Bavarian wing of Merkel’s CDU). These measures were also requested by the Länder, which are experiencing difficulty in accommodating refugees. This is more than a logistical problem, it could become a life threatening problem with the arrival of winter.
However, a new plan is being discussed to build about 300 000 new apartments for refugees, increasing space for current and future refugees. Berlin itself already took measures to build 15 000 new apartments. This hopefully indicates that the closing of the border and populist pressure are just temporary phenomenons.
A continuous crisis which may lead to an economic miracle
Numbers are revealing in understanding the deeper impact of the stream of refugees into Germany, and the reluctance of other European countries in accepting as many refugees. The German government recently stated that it expects 1 million refugees this year. Of course not all of those refugees will be allowed to stay, as those from the Balkans. Of the Syrian refugees allowed to stay, 70% are male – typically the first to leave on the dangerous journey from refugee camps in Lebanon or Jordan, and later joined by their families. Thus, even if 300 000 refugees are deported, the families of those staying will still compensate for the number of those expelled and cause a population growth of 1 million. Despite this large number, we can speculate that Germany will want to keep these people due to the success of the immigrants who arrived after the Yugoslavian war.
Based on the assumption that for the next ten years the refugee stream will not abate, and following the argument that Germany will profit from the integration of these refugees, this could lead to an economic boom for the country. This boom is not just an abstract possibility, but it already is part of the refugee debate in Germany. For example the head of Daimler, Mercedes’ mother company, stated that he expects a new Economic Miracle caused by the refugees.
Down the line, this boom could lead to a shift in the balance of powers in Europe if the other European countries don’t live up to Germany’s performance.
At the moment Germany is already Europe’s biggest country by population and economy, the two next biggest ones being France and the UK. Both are reluctant to take in refugees: The UK is willing to take in a mere 20 000 refugees from Syria over the next 5 years – a fraction of Germany’s million, France is only willing to accept 20 000 refugees from Syria in 2015. If they do not fundamentally change their approach to refugees the disparity between Germany and other European countries might grow immensely.
If the stream of refugees continues for at least eight years, which is not unlikely, Germany’s population will eventually grow by eight million, a growth of 6.5% to a German population of 90 million. If each refugee contributes as much to the economy as the average German, Germany will also experience an additional GDP growth of a total 6,5% over 8 years, caused by the influx of human capital. This is in addition of course to the 2% annual growth that it experiences currently. Of course, it would be difficult for Germany to take one million refugees in every year, but with building of new accommodation for refugees, a higher budget to supply free German language courses and acts such as German families helping refugee families to integrate or Humboldt University Berlin offering free classes to refugees, it is possible.
Therefore the UK and France should not be hesitant in increasing their intake of refugees, not only for economic but also for moral and political reasons. Germany has played a big hand by daringly accepting what other countries are unwilling to admit: that the influx of refugees will bring them benefits in the long run. It is time for the other European countries to understand that their current position will only leave them behind in their economic stagnancy and that Germany’s move may be the only possible and reasonable response to the current crisis.
Featured image credit: Freedom House, CC Flickr. License can be found here.