Why Trump and Merkel must discuss migration

Each leader went too far on migration policy, forcing the US and Germany into a debate over national identity. Now they can listen to each other on next steps on how to deal with global migrants.

AP Photo
A group of Germans take part in an April 15 workshop, led by Syrian migrants, to learn the traditional Arabic dance Dabke in Berlin, Germany.

One reason so many migrants try to reach Europe or the United States is that both guarantee free and open debate – about issues such as immigration. Democracy is alluring in its demand of citizens to listen to one another out of respect for equality. Such ideals are rare in much of Africa, Central America, and the Middle East, which are the main sources of today’s mass migrations.

On Friday, the topic of migration will be on the table during a “working visit” by German Chancellor Angela Merkel to the White House. Both Ms. Merkel and President Trump have defined their political identity on the issue. In 2015, she flung open Germany’s borders to more than 1 million refugees and migrants. On the opposite side of the political spectrum, Trump has tried to close America’s borders, mainly to those from the south and from Muslim countries.

Each has been forced to learn they went too far. Merkel admits she made a mistake in welcoming so many migrants so quickly. Now an anti-immigrant party is her lead opposition. For Mr. Trump, resistance from Congress and the courts has made him back down on many promises, such as insisting Mexico pay for a border wall.

In addition, both now recognize a greater need to stem the flow of migrants at its source. Germany is funding aid programs in Africa, while the US has tried to curb the flow of people from Syria with, for instance, missile strikes after the recent use of chemical weapons on Syrian civilians.

At a higher level, both the US and Germany (along with much of Europe) are in the midst of reshaping their collective identity via the push and pull of debate over immigration. Which values are at stake in allowing a more pluralistic society? Can new migrants keep their identity but coexist with a nation’s overarching identity? How should a country balance rule of law and sovereignty against a compassion for refugees or a need for workers?

Answering such questions takes more democracy, not less. In a speech this month, French President Emmanuel Macron decried the rise of anti-immigration parties in Europe, or what he called “selfish nationalism.” He said the political divide over values within the European Union is like a “civil war.” He called on EU leaders “to have a democratic, critical debate on what Europe is about” before the next election for a new European Parliament in 2019.

Would-be migrants to Europe or the US are attracted by such calls for a democratic way of resolving differences. In a new book titled “Suicide of the West,” American writer Jonah Goldberg writes, “Nearly all higher forms of social organization expand the definition of ‘us’ to permit large forms of cooperation.” Over centuries of history, smaller identities have been shed for more expansive ones.

The key in such debates is humility to listen as equals for the best solutions. In their respective countries, Merkel and Trump have had to listen to their opponents. Now they can also listen to each other.

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