The death of over 360 people, who drowned off the coast of Italy while hoping to gain asylum, has rekindled a debate in Germany and throughout Europe. Everyone is asking: What can be done in response to a continuing wave of refugees fleeing political oppression, economic poverty, and the terror of civil war? The challenge is a global one, but it is also a source of serious controversy in those countries that are the desired destinations for thousands seeking a better life for themselves and their families.

The challenges of migration and asylum continue with many viable solutions. While the European Union (EU) needs a strategic policy response, only hasty measures have been taken so far to enhance capacities to control migration. As a first response to Lampedusa, the EU’s interior ministers decided to establish a European Border Surveillance System (EUROSUR) to defend Europe against undocumented immigration. Yet it is uncertain whether the “Fortress Europe” approach works. Lampedusa has induced many in Europe, including Germany, to rethink whether this approach is sustainable.

Germany may currently be preoccupied with the formation of its government, but Berlin eventually needs to contribute more to the European debate and address the root causes of these tragedies. Martin Schulz, President of the European Parliament, is preparing to become President of the European Commission next year and has asked the German public to reconsider the existing restrictive policy. Germany will have to strike a balance between restriction, control, humanitarian concerns, and admitting more immigrants. The developments of the past fifteen years have actually put Germany in good shape to play a leadership role in the European context that is not merely inward-looking and defensive.

The 1990s: Bringing Down Immigration

The level of political instability in Northern Africa and the Near East today is somewhat analogous to the instability that emerged in Central and Eastern Europe and the Western Balkans after the end of Europe’s division and the fall of the communist regimes. In Germany, the number of asylum applications went up from an average of 70,000 in the 1980s to more than 438,000 in 1992. A large number of violent attacks were committed against asylum-seekers; two Turkish families died when their houses were set on fire in Mölln and Solingen. Pogrom-like riots against immigrants in Hoyerswerda and Rostock should be considered the darkest part of Germany’s post-unification history.

Xenophobia and the pressures on mainstream parties from growing, radical parties triggered major immigration reform. Changing the Basic Law in 1992, every person’s right to file an application for political asylum was modified to no longer apply to persons arriving from so-called “safe third countries.” Within the context of the EU and through multilateral or bilateral treaties, Germany pushed for measures to divert potential asylum seekers away from Germany. Furthermore, if not in life-threatening danger in the country from which they try to enter Germany, asylum seekers should not have the right to enter Germany. The 1990 Dublin Convention was to become a cornerstone of a system to determine “the state responsible for asylum.” Germany wanted to be responsible as rarely as possible.

For Germany, the EU was instrumental for realizing its defensive policy aims. The Dublin Convention, initially an international treaty external to the EU, was integrated into EU law in 2003. The EU’s Dublin system was expanded by a fingerprinting database for unauthorized entrants to the EU. Fighting migration became a key issue for the EU in its external relations. Offering incentives and pressuring Europe’s southern neighbors to control migration flows on behalf of the EU has been a key element in the EU Neighborhood Policy.

This policy has apparently been successful. Numbers dropped quickly. In Germany, there were less than 100,000 asylum claims after 1997, and less than 50,000 applications after 2003. The enormous tidal wave emerging out of instability in Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkan wars in the 1990s declined to a much smaller flow in the new millennium.

Toward Immigrant Incorporation

At a time when immigration had gone down, and after the government change from Helmut Kohl’s center-right government to the center-left SPD-Green coalition led by Gerhard Schröder in 1998, policy shifted toward bringing about the incorporation of immigrants already present in Germany. In 1999, naturalization law was reformed. In addition to Germany’s old ethno-cultural conception of citizenship that awards citizenship based on the citizenship of the parents, German law now also grants a right to citizenship for anyone born on German soil. German citizenship law has become much more similar to what is known in the American context.

The naturalization law was contested by the CDU and its sister party, Bavaria’s Christian Social Union (CSU). The same is true for an immigration reform discussed from 2000 to 2004. Initially, there was a plan to introduce a point system for immigration. This issue, again, polarized the political left and right. The SPD and the Greens took a pro-immigration stance. The conservatives rejected the reforms for cultural reasons, and because immigration was not considered to be in Germany’s economic self-interest. As the consent of the Bundesrat, Germany’s second legislative chamber, was needed, and as this chamber was dominated by the conservative parties, the point system failed. Nevertheless, the Zuwanderungsgesetz (immigration law) introduced integration measures comprising of language courses and an “orientation course” with an introduction to the politics and society of Germany for newly arriving immigrants and immigrants already present.

After 2005, the CDU under Angela Merkel took more modern positions. Initiatives for an integration summit and an Islam conference in 2006 received support from all political parties. There is an effort to mobilize resources of all relevant societal groups for integration, and to improve conditions for Germany’s more than 2 million Muslims to practice their religion.

Immigration policy was removed from party competition for the time being. However, this immigration consensus has been built on the premise that keeping immigrants away from Germany is largely successful. But times are changing.

The State of Denial that Will Not Work

Lampedusa has shaped discussions in Italy, Spain, France, and at the European level significantly. It is a triggering event. Tragedies such as the one at Lampedusa have occurred before and after. Many homeless, tempest-tossed migrants from Africa and the Middle East, yearning to reach Europe’s doors, have lost their lives at sea. Frequently, their bodies are found on the beaches of Italy and Spain. Just because of the dimension of the incident, Lampedusa has left a deeper imprint on public debates across Europe. It is a turning point toward a recognition that Europe cannot insulate itself.

Beyond the immediate reports and the unavoidable shock about what has happened at the cost of Lampedusa, this debate has not yet hit German ground. The issue of impoverished migrants from Bulgaria and Romania is receiving more attention. EU law gives them the right to settle freely within the EU. Migrants from Bulgaria and Romania have concentrated themselves in a few German cities, and a recent court case, granting migrants access to social benefits in limited circumstances, has alarmed local and national policymakers that incentives might have grown for this migration within the EU.

Compared to the migration across the Mediterranean Sea, this is a comparatively small issue. As political instability in Northern Africa will not be resolved quickly, Europe’s immigration challenges will not go away anytime soon. Political and social turmoil has been triggered by economic stagnation and misery. Yet, new political regimes have not been able to change those conditions significantly. Tunisia, the birthplace of the Arab Spring, has managed to maintain some stability, but Egypt has fallen back to military rule. Even worse, Syria is in the midst of a civil war, and Libya is nearly a failed state.

The factors driving people to seek an escape from political instability and economic misery are stronger than ever. Regaining stability and helping to bring growth to Africa and the larger Middle East are long term challenges. It will take years, if not decades, to achieve this. Meanwhile, the EU needs ideas on how to deal with the present trend of migration toward its borders.

The “safe third country” provision does not work when there is an excessive imbalance of burdens among EU countries. Italy and Spain are the main entry points to EU territory, but they cannot handle the issue alone. The moral and political pressure on Germany will increase along with the intensity of migration pressure on Europe in general. German politics is still in a state of denial that the favorable circumstances of the past years are unlikely to persist.

Germany’s Next Government: No Need to be Afraid of Immigration

Immigration is not considered a vote winner. Yet even if parties do not choose to put immigration on the agenda, circumstances will move it there. Governments are neither able to fully control migration, nor do they control their agendas. The September 11 attacks, Lehman collage, and European debt crisis were unforeseen. But even if immigration is not highlighted in a coalition agreement, Germany is actually prepared politically, culturally, and administratively for the issue it cannot avoid.

Politically, a Grand Coalition, Germany‘s most probable next coalition, is potentially the best constellation for addressing migration without turning it into an awkward matter of party-political tactics. No doubt, it will be more difficult for the Christian Democrats to move beyond a merely restrictive stance. Germany’s center-right party has always been keenly aware of the potential of a right-wing populist party to mobilize xenophobic resentment. In May 2014, the European Parliament will be elected, offering excellent opportunities for populism. On the other hand, the new pope has called upon the Catholic clergy in Italy to openly accept immigrants into church-owned buildings. He has visited refugee camps at Lampedusa and spoke out against “the globalization of indifference.” Even before the Lampedusa tragedy, he had called upon Christians to engage in “brotherly solidarity” with refugees. That of course, resonates with the constituency of the Christian Democrats and gives party leaders leeway to explain what they may be doing.

Germany is prepared culturally. Compared to many other EU member states, including Italy and Spain, Germany is an “old” country of immigration. Germany saw considerable labor immigration in the 1960s and 1970, and refugees and asylum seekers arriving in the 1980s and 1990s. One fourth of Germany’s population has a “migration background,” i.e., a first, second, or third-generation immigrant. Angela Merkel may have proclaimed that “multiculturalism is dead,” but at the same time, her government was propping up policies on diversity and integration. After heated debates and sharp polarization, Germany has moved toward a consensus to be a country of immigration in the past seven years. Germany has the policies and the administrative capacities to handle immigration, and to support integration.

Particularly when considering Germany’s past, it is noteworthy that unlike many other European states, Germany has not seen the rise of an anti-immigrant populist party. Germany’s next government will be careful not to provoke that. There is no denying that a new elite consensus is not shared by every single German. Still, the political, administrative, and cultural preconditions are there to make dealing with immigration feasible. Germany is much better prepared in the twenty-first century to pursue a policy that disregards isolationism, that accepts the requirements for enlightened economic self-interest and “brotherly solidarity,” and that is European-minded.