(c) Helmut Schmidt Universität

“Fortress Europe? Consequences of European and German Migration and Asylum Policies”

Keynote by the First Mayor of Hamburg, Olaf Scholz (SPD), for the Dahrendorf Panel Discussion “Fortress Europe?” on 18 November 2015 at the Helmut-Schmidt-Universität, Hamburg


Professor Seidel,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

Hamburg is in mourning for Helmut Schmidt, who died a few days ago. And yet his presence can be felt everywhere. Politicians and ordinary citizens have been paying their respects for his achievements and reflecting on the principles which are his legacy. His guiding principle was to take pragmatic action whenever it serves a moral purpose. He saw it as his life’s work to preserve peace; he steered the ship of state through a period of enormous economic challenge and ensured that the rule of law retained the upper hand against the Red Army Fraction terrorists.

When he was minister of defence, Helmut Schmidt founded the Bundeswehr universities; and so the first one to open, the one in Hamburg, bears his name. He thus brought the intellectual and military sides of army life together, and linked academia with defence issues. The Helmut Schmidt University is therefore a good place to dig deeper into the question of what we, who live in Europe, need to defend.

Being ready, willing and able to defend itself is one of an open society’s virtues, as are respect and liberty. History has taught us that. Therefore our constitution calls upon its citizens to defend themselves against the enemies of freedom, democracy and the rule of law. That was also a tenet of Sir Karl Popper; his name, in turn, points to another son of Hamburg, Ralf Dahrendorf, one of Popper’s most eminent scholars, who played a key role in transforming Germany into the open society it is today.

Beyond guarding against extremist positions, thus adopting a defence policy that is usually termed “fortified” or “militant democracy”, our Republic needs our active commitment to its values in many other ways and circumstances. Germany’s Basic Law may be read as a textbook on how this defence is structured: It begins with the affirmation of human dignity, freedom, equality and political participation, is cloaked in the principles of a social, democratic state governed by the rule of law and embedded in European integration.

The open society is what we defend, and its openness also determines the methods we employ in its defence. And in this sense there is nothing wrong with the open society being a fortified castle – I am reluctant to say ‘fortress’, because of its dark connotations with the Second World War.

Just as the concept of militant democracy is one of our founding principles, so too is the fair treatment of refugees. And it must be admitted that as soon as the war had ended, people were already wondering whether it was possible to take defensive action against the refugees. Josef Müller-Marein, journalist and later editor in chief of the weekly paper Die Zeit wrote an article for the feuilleton of 14 March 1946 in which he describes a scene observed at the housing office in Hamburg.

Quote: “A narrow table. In front of it, people seeking admittance, like packs of wolves; the guards sit behind the table, their pencils sharpened like spears … But it’s not that simple. The “intruders” are tired and used to disappointments, they have lost most of their drive. And for their part, the guards are not harsh, they have feelings and are not devoid of sympathy.” End of quote.

On both sides people had been traumatized by the war, there was homelessness and massive unemployment. We know how well the process of integrating refugees succeeded, how much hard work was necessary and the crucial role that these efforts played in the subsequent economic success of the Federal Republic of Germany. The situation today is different. The new arrivals do not speak our language and they come from different cultures. That makes integration far more difficult. But Germany has changed too: the refugees are coming to a country with a mature democracy.

This is evident from the great dedication shown by volunteers. We can hear it in carefully considered, serious discussions among people who want to find a solution. And we have witnessed an incredible display of the service ethos: civil servants, salaried workers, soldiers and the police are fully concentrated, work long hours and reveal, almost en passant, that public services are indispensable pillars of the liberal state.

Populists and rabble-rousers also exist. Yes, indeed, an open society does have enemies. People who distort the facts and spread false rumours. People who make money from the desperation of refugees, who want to split society apart and boost their own terrible ideologies.

But the majority of Germans are impressively open-minded, which is something that Germany can be proud of. The people in this country know that the large number of people fleeing their homes need protection from war, violence and terrorism. The people of Germany know what is happening in Syria, Eritrea and Iraq. They understand why children, young adults and families are fleeing death, despair and the feeling of being trapped by circumstances.

Today Europe, having experienced many centuries of war and enforced displacement, is a place that offers hope, and promises prosperity and security. About 8,000 people cross the EU’s borders every day. This is an enormous challenge. But we must say – loud and clear – that refugees are not a threat to an open society. And they are not a threat to the EU. But the great refugee treks do mean we have to think about our values. They set us the task of explicitly defining these values. The questions start with “how”: how can states offer the migrants who stay for a long time a perspective for the future? How must Europe change, in order to deal intelligently with this situation?

This is a very big task. It calls for pragmatic action and a sense of proportion. We will have to live with solutions that are different from the ones we wanted. Provisional arrangements that we would have rejected a few years ago, such as housing refugees in big home improvement stores and factory halls. But if this year we need to provide over 40,000 places in Hamburg alone, and probably another 30,000 or more next year, there is no other way to cope with the numbers. But, bit by bit, cautiously and earnestly, we will fulfil our humanitarian obligations. We will organize accommodation, offer help and also make our values known. Values such as efficiency and reliability – the hallmarks of our work environment – the liberal values of self-determination and respect that characterize our approach to religion and sexuality, and the political values of citizen participation and recognizing the rights of the opposition.

The decisive issue is whether we manage to utilize the labour market’s capacity for integration. We have a functional economy that welcomes migrants. A survey conducted by the Hamburg Chamber of Commerce found that the managers of four in every five companies would consider hiring refugees.

We must take concerted, strategic action. The Hamburg “W.I.R” programme is one way of doing it. The acronym stands for “work and integration for refugees”. This involves systematically applying the good experience gained by the youth careers advisory agencies to offers for refugees likely to be allowed to stay in the country. The aims are to establish what vocational qualifications the newcomers have, find appropriate language courses, and reactivate skills, improving them to a degree that those who are willing and able to work can be well integrated into the job market. W.I.R brings together all the parties who can help integrate refugees into the labour market.

Germany is in a position to take responsibility for this massive task that has so suddenly been dropped into our laps. The Federal and state governments have agreed on a series of very sensible measures. The central government will make a substantial contribution to the costs that so far local and regional governments have borne alone. The states have successfully lobbied to have the amount granted geared to the number of refugees and the time taken to process applications. More funding is now also available for integration courses, and language instruction is being made more relevant to the workplace. We have also taken a critical look at building regulations and created more scope to adapt the codes so that states and local governments can build new accommodation.

Because it is such a huge task, and many people are justifiably wondering about the details, it is important that we concentrate on helping those who are fleeing war, and seeking protection from religious or political persecution. Otherwise the state risks losing legitimation for its actions. If we want to protect these refugees, there must be no prevarication, and people who come into our country for any other reasons must be refused refugee status and turned away.

Resolutions passed by the Bundestag and the Bundesrat show that federalism works. On this issue, Germany is capable of reaching a consensus. Twice this year, major law packages have been passed by the upper and lower houses – the Bundestag and the Bundesrat. This is a superb achievement that should not be obscured by public debate about many issues of detail.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Europe is well equipped to meet this responsibility, too, if we are able to agree on joint procedures and how the burden is distributed. In May the European Commission presented various suggestions. The “European Agenda on Migration” stresses the will to create a strong, united policy on asylum. The Commission wishes to make resources available for this joint task and promises to relax some of the rules of Europe’s public procurement law.

The package of measures also includes a joint list of safe countries of origin. This includes, for example, all states in the west Balkans. But equally, it is important to offer a perspective to countries in the west Balkans. Economic hardship and social ostracism have led to a large increase in migrants from these regions. We have the highly paradoxical situation that these states wish to join the EU but their citizens are not sufficiently confident it will happen. Definite prospects of membership play an important role in stabilizing the region and securing peace.

A joint European policy also means that we find ways in which responsibility for refugees can be shared between more countries in Europe. If refugees were evenly spread between the Union’s 500 million people, it would not be so very difficult to cope with the newcomers, even in their current numbers. The situation is complicated only because very few countries are now actually engaged in what is our common task of offering the refugees protection. The EU has at least agreed on a relocation scheme for 40,000 asylum seekers, and then on a follow-up plan for a further 120,000 people. It’s not much, but it’s a step in the right direction.

Another kind of solution is to divide up the work involved in taking joint responsibility. This is the case when, for example, hotspots are set up in arrival countries such as Greece and Italy and funded by the Community. However, this will only work if, from the moment people arrive at the reception facilities, it is clear what the next steps will be. Hotspots are merely a way station and people must move on after a little while. Those who cannot be considered refugees under European law must turn back. The refugees, however, must be admitted into Europe and divided between countries according to agreed quotas.

Creating Hotspots and accepting a common responsibility for refugees also presupposes that we recognize that we are all responsible for Europe’s external borders. All of us – not just the states with one of the EU’s external borders. These borders must be safe – some with and some without a fence – and yet point the way across the borders to people fleeing war or political and religious persecution.

It is definitely not the answer to adopt exclusively national strategies and push all responsibility onto the countries that happen to be at the external borders or lie on the transit routes. Neither Greece nor the states in the west Balkans would be able to shoulder this burden. But on the other hand, it is obvious that merely waving refugees through is not a common European policy either.

Of course, any common European strategy must take the situation in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon into consideration. These countries are sheltering many refugees – in fact, a great many more than we are – and we must not forget that. It beggars belief that the international community and the EU have failed to provide sufficient funds to look after refugees in the camps in these countries – and this has undoubtedly contributed to turning the trickle of refugees into a torrent since the summer of this year.

We must also feel responsible for finding a solution to the conflict in Syria and agreeing on a common strategy against the terrorist organization ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Germany’s foreign office is at present acting in exemplary style by bringing together diplomats for a conference on Syria in Vienna in an effort to reach a consensus.

And I believe that a solution based on a division of labour must also allow people who have been granted asylum status to move freely within the EU later on. This can be part of the principle of freedom of movement within the EU. As the law now stands, cross border travel in the Schengen area is not legal for up to five years after asylum has been granted. Therefore all refugees feel impelled to get to their chosen destination as fast as possible. If, however, someone were able to apply for asylum in Poland or the Czech Republic and, once his or her status has been recognized, could then look for work in a different country, tensions would be eased. Perhaps that might encourage EU states currently unwilling to take in more than a few, if any, refugees to admit more asylum seekers. And it may persuade asylum seekers to submit their applications in a European country that is not their first choice. Dublin III and the resultant distribution of asylum applicants between 28 states and 500 million inhabitants could then be supplanted by a Dublin IV agreement.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The European Union has entered a fascinating phase. There are many institutions and regulations that work very well: 28 nations that used to act for their own benefit and often in opposition to each other, now formulate a common policy. Instead of complicated small-nation solutions they have created joint laws and work together for the prosperity and security of their 500 million people. After hundreds of years of armed conflict, the EU is the first international organization in Europe to guarantee stability, peace and prosperity.

Among the key achievements of a united Europe are the European single market, the right enjoyed by 508 million citizens to move freely within the Union, the abolition of border controls in the Schengen area and the common European asylum system. The logic of linking systems is to offset open borders within the Union by more rigorous controls of the external borders. The entire concept only works if everyone can rely on it. Various countries in Europe are now testing the limits of this system. But what clearly emerges is, those who wish to share in the benefits of the European single market cannot permanently refuse to be part of a common solution to the refugee issue.

We have stabilized the euro, weathered the financial crisis and kept Greece in the EU.

And, as we are learning from the refugee issue – Europe is strong only when it is united. There is no solution that adheres solely to the perspective of the nation-state. I am confident that we in Europe will succeed in setting up stable procedures allowing us to take common responsibility for our external borders and asylum policies. And, once again, the EU will grow in stature thereby.

Thank you very much.


The opinions expressed in this blog contribution are entirely those of the author and do not represent the positions of the Dahrendorf Forum or its hosts Hertie School and London School of Economics or its funder Stiftung Mercator.