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11:32 17 November 2015

OPINION: Migrant crisis: the greatest challenge for 'Mother Merkel'

By Masatoshi Nagata
TOKYO, Nov. 17, Kyodo

Video footage showing hundreds of Syrian migrants struggling to board a train at a Budapest station reminded me of the scene at Grunewald station in Berlin. It was at Grunewald station, more than 70 years ago, that many Jews were packed in trains and deported to the infamous Auschwitz death camp.

A Hungarian woman in the Hungarian capital said on a local radio station, "I never wanted to see a scene of people being crammed into a train again." Undoubtedly, she was recalling the trains carrying Jews that passed through such stations in the 1940s.

But now, hundreds of people in and around the Budapest station were hoisting pictures of German chancellor Angela Merkel and shouting words of praise for her humanitarian efforts.

What a change! The Greek financial crisis, which saw Greek magazines depict Merkel as Adolf Hitler, seems like ancient history. "Merkel the Devil" became "Mother Merkel" overnight.

Twenty-five years have passed since the reunification of East and West Germany. Germany is now the most powerful nation in Europe, not just in terms of economic might but also political clout. Chancellor Merkel was recently dubbed the "most influential woman in the world" by the U.S. magazine Forbes.

Celebrating the anniversary of German reunification, German Ambassador to Japan Hans Carl von Werthern told invited guests at his residence in Tokyo in October that receiving those migrants will have "positive effects" on Germany.

Merkel said on public TV, ARD, that European countries should not close their borders, criticizing Hungary's decision to build a fence along its border with Serbia.

One cause of the migrant crisis, however, was the failure of the United States to confront the problem head-on in a timely fashion.

U.S. President Obama publicly warned Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's administration that the use of chemical weapons on its own people would "cross a red line," suggesting that the United States was prepared to intervene militarily.

But despite getting confirmation of the use of chemical weapons, the United States refrained from launching air raids, which only served to intensify the civil war.

During this time the Islamic fundamentalist group "Islamic State" made surprisingly rapid advances.

Russian president Vladimir Putin exploited the situation. Russia, which had begun a conflict with Ukraine, started assisting the Assad regime by supplying military personnel and equipment. A proxy war looms in the Middle East.

A Tokyo-based diplomat from a Nordic country, who requested anonymity, told me that in his view a "second Cold War" has already begun.

According to his analysis, after the Georgia conflict in 2008, a revitalized Russia has been repeatedly trying to gain control in the Baltic nations, Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

Meanwhile, we are witnessing a historical irony in the migrant crisis. Hungary, the country that removed the "Iron Curtain" with Austria in 1989, leading to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, is now creating a new barrier along its border with Serbia to keep out migrants.

The migrants dream of reaching Germany. The "dream country" appears poised to undertake the job of filling the void created by the Obama administration.

However, the continuing influx of migrants into Germany is also putting strains on society and causing a backlash. Ultra-right wing groups have been attacking migrants and setting fire to the facilities housing them.

Henriette Reker, who supported Merkel's immigration policy of welcoming asylum seekers, was stabbed by a person angry with the policy while she was campaigning to become mayor of Cologne.

Although Germany and the European Union have endured countless conflicts and problems, Chancellor Merkel is now facing her greatest challenge so far. French authorities are becoming more heavy-handed toward migrants after the Paris terror attacks. How Merkel addresses the situation in the coming months and years will prove whether she is competent to lead Europe and the world.

(Masatoshi Nagata, a senior editor in the International Department of Kyodo News, is a former Kyodo bureau chief who was stationed in Berlin and Vienna.)

==Kyodo

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