Four words for humanity

"We can do it" – Merkel's utterance has become an historic remark. To actually pack it with some political substance is the big challenge of the 21st century. A commentary by Heribert Prantl

By Heribert Prantl

She could have said something else. She could have said: "I can't allow myself to be blackmailed by the crying eyes of children." This is how Austrian Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner approached the issue; German guardians of the state have also adopted a similar tone, using sentences like these to extol heartlessness as a purportedly responsible action: Germany must show an example. Brutality in doses is better than an unchecked absorption policy.

So one year ago, should Angela Merkel have closed her heart and her borders? Should she have deployed the federal police force as a defence against refugees and asserted regulations with tear gas, batons and water cannon if required? Should the Chancellor have used violence to block the path of the refugees, should she have braced for the possibility of deaths and injuries? Refugee children not on the Turkish beach at Bodrum, but on the German border at Passau?

Should she have issued a televised declaration together with Vice-Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel and Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere to pitch the hard-line approach with a determined air:

"Dear Compatriots, these images are not pleasant. They are painful to watch. But we cannot take on the suffering of the world: it is too big. Our nation has been generous for a long time. But our resilience has reached its capacity. For this reason, we now plan to close and protect our borders. We do not like the methods that we must deploy in order to do this. There is unfortunately no other way. We must bear this suffering and these images together for the sake of stability and order in Europe. Germany has, together with Austria, Hungary and other nations on the Balkan route, formed the axis of active rationality. It will ensure that the situation along our borders settles down. We will ask the United Nations to do more to take care of the refugees and we will significantly increase our financial contribution to the UN Refugee Agency."

A self-confident answer to the right-wingers′ battle cry of ″Auslaender raus″ (Foreigners get out!)
There′s nothing new about the "Refugees welcome" slogan: it emerged around the world as a result of various refugee initiatives during the nineteen-nineties. Yet 2015 would see its revival, as an expression of Germany′s ″culture of welcome″, printed on stickers, flyers, t-shirts and as a social media tag

If such a policy had existed, if such a declaration had been issued – Germany would today be a different country, along the lines of Hungary: Article 1 would have disappeared from the constitution through shame and committees of inquiry would have been set up to find out what happened to it. But Merkel would today, if she had remained Chancellor despite such policies, have no problems with the AfD; because she would herself be the AfD. And the election on Sunday in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania would have been just a run-of-the-mill state poll of little interest to anyone.

But it's quite a different story now: Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania has just 1.3 million registered voters, about the same number as in Hamburg. But Merkel's own constituency is located in MeckPomm; and that's why this election, a year after "We can do it", a year after taking in the refugees mistreated by Hungary, has a symbolic power – although even in less turbulent times, the Chancellor didn't perform especially well there.

A statement in response to vulgar insults in Saxony

"We can do it": nine letters that have for a year now been twisted, turned, shaken, stirred, praised and castigated. Was it just a sentence uttered to boost the confidence of state, society and Europe? Was it an invitation to refugees? A pledge, a promise even? The brief sentence was a reaction to vulgar insults hurled at the Chancellor in the Saxon town of Heidenau. It was a reaction to the horror of 27 August, when a truck full of corpses was discovered on the Austrian A4 motorway near Potzneusiedl. It was a reaction to the huge numbers of people perishing in the Mediterranean.

We can do it: it was an appeal to humanity. The sentence was the expression of a decent personal stance that was not yet policy and for a long time did not result in a policy; also because the policy on absorption and integration was sabotaged within Merkel's own parliamentary group.

It was sometimes as though a section of the political bureaucracy accepted a period of chaos to discredit Merkel's absorption policy and prepare a new policy of deterrence; this was, under the auspices of  "We can do it", written into law in recent months. In the history of the Federal Republic, refugee laws have never been as tight as they are today.

Lawyer and journalist Heribert Prantl (photo: imago/Muller-Stauffenberg)
"We can do it: it was an appeal to humanity. The sentence was the expression of a decent personal stance that was not yet policy and for a long time did not result in a policy; also because the policy on absorption and integration was sabotaged within Merkel's own parliamentary group," writes Prantl

We can do it: Angela Merkel didn't generate enough political substance from her sentence. But at times, this sentence became a spark of hope for hundreds of thousands of hopeful refugees; and this has created new problems. Merkel has nevertheless allowed her sentence to stand, has refused to budge over bad popularity ratings. That is countenance – of the sort Merkel's critics would otherwise expect of politicians.

For sure: countenance does not replace good politics. But it is a prerequisite. Against a backdrop of fluctuating sentiments, between the uplifting scenes at Munich Central Station last September and the frightening scenario at Cologne Central Station on New Year's Eve, sustainable policymaking would be otherwise impossible.

Unity and solidarity required

A year after Merkel's nine letters, society finds itself torn and to some extent extremely frightened. A 12-letter policy is now needed: "Lose your fear!" This can only function on the basis of a prevailing culture that builds upon the values of the constitution. And this in turn can only work if people feel domiciled and protected. Then they have the power to protect themselves.

One in every 10 Germans is engaged with refugees on a voluntary basis. That is extraordinary; indeed spectacular. This fact is given very little airtime in everyday political life, which remains fixated on AfD and PEGIDA.

Merkel's sentence has taken on historic dimensions. We find ourselves, hopefully, on the brink of an attempt to give back a home to people who have lost theirs; this requires unity and solidarity; it is the task of the 21st century. It will not always work out in ways that we would ideally wish for; the deal with Turkey being a case in point. But nevertheless: better "We can do this" than "We Germans fear God, but otherwise nothing else in the world." Merkel's sentence is comparable with that of Willy Brandt: "Take a chance on more democracy." Six words. One word. One mission.

Heribert Prantl

© Suddeutsche Zeitung 2016

Translated from the German by Nina Coon