Published on Project Syndicate.
LONDON – Last autumn, I was in Malta at the Valletta Summit on Migration, attended by European and African heads of state and government. I was invited as United Nations Special Representative of the Secretary-General for International Migration. As is customary at such events, there was a group photograph, in which I ended up beside German Chancellor Angela Merkel. I took the opportunity to whisper to her that, in my opinion, she was a heroine for her action on the migration issue. Her reply was to the effect that she was doing what was “necessary for Europe.”
Since then, I have reflected on her actions and what she, not just then but over the many months of Europe’s migration crisis, has said. In essence, Merkel has called this an existential crisis for Europe, and more serious than the Greek debt imbroglio. She has also repeatedly cited the moral (and legal) obligation that we all owe to refugees.
Much of the world is surprised that a German chancellor is speaking in these terms. Altiero Spinelli, the late Italian European federalist, wrote that German racism, which incited World War II, may have been occasioned by, but was not caused by, economic motives. He argued that, in historic terms, “the absurd anarchy of European international organization” has been “the most propitious terrain imaginable for the full expression of racism.” That suspect terrain is clearly visible once more in the absence of support for the EU’s proposed migrant quota system, which would allocate refugees to the member states on the basis of fair criteria.
It is clear from Merkel’s comments and actions that she wants to take the lead on this issue not just in Germany, but in Europe as a whole. It is also clear that many Europeans (and others) appreciate her courageous and principled stand. Europe needs leadership, and its institutions require its member states – particularly the most powerful ones – to address an issue that goes to the heart of the values we profess to hold.