“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free” – Inscription on the Statue of Liberty
Having so recently played the part of the hard-hearted, skinflint uncle to a tee in the Greek crisis, it has been a profoundly pleasant surprise to see Germany behave in such a generous manner over the massive influx of refugees that has descended on it. Let’s be clear from the outset: the refugees are perfectly rational to want to get as far away from the hell that is Syria as possible, fleeing in a desperate bid to escape the diabolical clutches of three separate groups of mass murderers in the country (al-Qaeda, Isis, and the Assad regime). Ordinary Germans, moved as we all have been by the harrowing pictures of the desperate plight of these people, have responded in a manner that is a credit to both them and the rebuilt miracle that is the modern German Republic. Some 450,000 migrants have arrived in the country since the beginning of the year.
But we have now seen the perhaps inevitable backlash. While the German public has thus far been solidly behind keeping the country’s doors open and extending their welcome to the refugees, given the mammoth undertaking of re-settling a projected 800,000-plus people this year alone, Germany’s decision to reintroduce controls on its border with Austria yesterday may not be too much of a surprise. This is not only a great shame in humanitarian terms, however, but could prove to be a catastrophe for Germany economically in the long run if the restrictions do not turn out to be temporary.
For on the question of whether Germany can and should keep its doors open to the refugees, one basic, overriding fact must be stressed time and again; it is entirely in Germany’s own self-interest to keep doing good. In fact, without this demographic jolt to the system, Germany’s enviable way of life (a major reason the refugees wish to go there in the first place) is doomed to come to a jarring halt.
Within the next ten years, Germany will become the world’s oldest major industrialised nation, displacing even Japan. I often muse about this as I sit on endless German trains (as I am doing now); quite regularly I am the only one of working age in the first-class compartment, a fact which tends to make me panicky, as I simply cannot shoulder the crushing burdens of paying for the other five happily retired people sitting around me. In future, who is going to backstop those endless holidays, lavish benefits, and (belying the stereotype) rather easy-going way of life? With a replacement birth rate well below the necessary 2.1, no one it seems.
If the iron laws of demography hold true, there are only three remedies to such a perilous situation: significantly reducing German benefits, significantly raising the retirement age, or taking in significant numbers of immigrants to make up the difference. Until recently, all three possibilities looked to be massive electoral losers. However, suddenly, Germany’s magnificent reaction to the refugee crisis showed that a way out of this confounding, long-term economic problem could be found.
So when some ageing, anti-immigration, anti-Islamic, older citizen supporting the Pegida populist movement next utters the usual bile in Dresden, I’d like to ask them one simple question: would you rather be bigoted or would you rather retire? For given German demographic and economic realities, that is precisely what it comes down to.
The German people have not acted in their notably generous way toward the refugees because of their keen understanding of their deep-seated economic requirements; and that is a credit to them. But this is a case where doing good leads directly to doing well. Angela Merkel, usually so cautious, has in recent months come out strongly in favour of supporting the refugees, and opening Germany’s doors in the face of Hungary’s odious Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Just last week, her vice chancellor said the country could take in 500,000 people annually for several years.
Let us hope, therefore, that Merkel’s government’s apparent volte-face in its approach to this crisis, the reintroduction of passport controls, is merely a temporary measure to allow Germany to deal with the movement of truly enormous numbers of people. For it is crucial that, as the crisis sees even tougher days, it is the fundamental economic argument for refugee inclusion that must be put forward politically, to decisively sway ordinary Germans to stay the generation-long course of assimilation. For the refugees are the last, best, chance Berlin has to perpetuate the German way of life well into the future. The refugees are not a feel-good luxury for Germany; they amount to an economic necessity.