By Isaac Sullivan
On the fabled grounds inside Leuven’s city ring, the long-held tradition of disputations lives on. The old school technique employed by scholastic thinkers of coming to a conclusion via argument vs. counter-argument.
A duel of sorts, with mutual understanding as its end. A pre-planned direct encounter with the opposite opinioned other. A debate, to say the least. Mono-i-mono. At stake is whether Germany’s open door policy should go down as a bad decision or not. I am one of about seventy-five others in attendance.
Give the HIW Debating Society credit for organizing; it’s their first public event (in connection with the institute of philosophy). The debate is framed as such: This House Believes That Germany’s Open Door Migrant Policy Was A Mistake. The sides are then characterized as Proposition vs. Opposition. The Proposition team headed by Dr. Lloyd Newton supports the proposition while the Opposition, headed by Dr. Helder De Schutter, aims to delegitimize it with sharply crafted and well-spoken words.
After anticipation builds in the midst of the small-talking gallery, the motion is introduced. And the Proposition is given the opportunity to get the ball rolling. Four speakers for each side: argument, counter-argument and so on. The audience has the opportunity to intervene with questions that the debaters can either accept or decline to answer.
First speaker, defending the position that Merkel’s policy was a mistake: She admitted it on January 30th, asserts Mr. Newton quoting Merkel. To have an open door policy is insane – nor does it follow the tradition of politics in the western world; from Ancient Greece through the middle ages to the EU, a governing bodies’ primary concern is to internal order. Open borders within the EU are a good thing, but it cannot be maintained with an unchecked influx of millions of people coming from outside its border – the goods of society are limited, we cannot open our doors to the whole earth.
He begins to cite German laws in support of his point – an audience member stands to interject. Permitted. Question: The Geneva Convention states that asylum seekers must be embraced.
Response: German law states that protection is not available to those coming from a safe state. Those coming to Germany’s border are arriving by land via Austria – they are coming from safe states. Time. Opposition’s turn.
Spectators exhale, breaths are taken, the argument is being analyzed as De Schutter takes his place at the podium. He will make three points. In no time the very terms of the debate are questioned: First of all it is not an open door policy, the opposition asserts, there are stipulations to the policy. And it is not pertaining to all migrants. Migrants are defined as those leaving one country to settle in another; it could be for love, for economic reasons, or even for better weather. But when a person leaves their country out of fear of death – this is a different kind of migrant: We call these refugees. There are many migrants, only a small portion of these are refugees seeking asylum.
His issue with the terms is not dealing with the moral crux of this debate, admittedly. It is nonetheless noteworthy.
Question, from Proposition’s bench: Recently gathered statistics suggest 60% of asylum seekers in Germany are claiming this title falsely.
Answer: They will be sent back, according to processes outlined in the Geneva Convention. Such processes will work, leading into the second point.
It is unfounded to say this is an unbearable burden for the welfare state. 50 % of asylum seekers are under 25 years old. They are the best and brightest from their country, they are not the well-aged, nor disabled, nor are they the young children; they are those who will contribute to the workforce and pay taxes.
Thirdly, in terms of poverty reduction, this Open Door policy is great. The best way to escape poverty is to immigrate to a wealthier country. And statistics show that emigrants from developing and war-torn countries become the best resource of aid for their home countries; sending more financial aid to their homelands than all non-profits, and charitable organizations combined. Time.
Second Proposition speaker: He comes out firing after a customary “thank you Mr. Speaker” by bringing up famed economist Milton Friedman, “it is a shame to judge policies on their intentions rather than their results.” Current policies are being determined by short-sighted nice seeming intentions. Estimations on the number of expected migrants and confidence in the ability to verify identities have been far off. First, it was an estimated 450,000 and then 800,000, then a million now a million and a half. Numbers now range from 30% to 60% regarding the number of asylum petitions which are not truthful. How can we assure that the Islamic State will not take advantage of this logistical nightmare? This is not fear mongering. This is the notion of protecting internal order. Merkel, David Cameron, and Sarkozy have all previously called the project of multiculturalism a failure, why should we expect it to work now? We cannot risk having even a few cruel-minded individuals in our border – looking at the damage in Paris caused by only 9-
Interjection: An audience member confidently rises from his seat. Terrorism is known to come more often from within a country: Paris attackers were European citizens; consider the IRA, he says (his tone suggesting personal familiarity). Time. Audience member back in his seat, interjection hardly addressed.
Second Opposition speaker: Keeping it personal amidst rising tensions: “I am a new student in the philosophy faculty, from Texas (don’t hold it against me).” His accent validates his claim. His initial tone like a regal storyteller: “In this very room…” he begins, referencing Christian roots still evidenced by the particular decor here. Is it possible to maintain the Christian altruism of past ages? We have heard statistics and fine sounding rational arguments from the Proposition side. But what is the principle of all this? There are two, he asserts, the universal distribution of goods, and the disposition to love. Seeking to strike empathetic chords in the audience: If I knock on your door in dire straits and say I need you? You don’t say “let me check.” No, when you are face to face with the other, you help them.
Question: Even before this crisis, Europe suffers 23 million unemployed, 25 million homeless. How do you love them? The audience member continues his remark for some time – “I have limited time” the speaker interrupts (suggesting the audience take his seat again). Well, you should have time because this is important and you said it was about love. Tense, one talking over another, voice rising.
Opposition (concluding): I am talking now of the principle we ought to work upon. Only after settling the principle should the question of specifics be addressed. Time.
Third Proposition speaker: also beginning with personal narrative, self-identifying as a migrant. Born in Germany, eventually moving to East Africa. I loved my time there, she says, but I also witnessed violence regularly – the result of clashing ethnic differences, a natural underside of a multicultural community. (Audience raises hand. Speaker continues) For Merkel’s policy to work, there must be a preeminent German identity with which new immigrants can identify. There must be assimilation. However, what of the Jewish community in Germany that will now be subject to scorn from new arriving people with malicious views toward Semitism? Should their interests not be considered in this? What of women’s rights? The policy will lead to culture clash.
Audience acknowledged now, in succession two similar sentiments are raised by audience members both native to Africa. One suggests that the Western influence, arbitrary borders, is the source of violence – not multiculturalism per se. A second, from Kenya, highlights the co-existence of 42 tribes in her home country and implies that the source of violence is the same as anywhere, thievery, human nature, and typical politics – not multiculturalism per se.
Answer: I can attest to my point from the personal experience that I and my friends have undergone and witnessed. Fair enough. Continuing her initial line of thought, for this policy to work the German people have to be on board. Merkel is advancing an agenda that the citizenry is rejecting. This disconnection is resulting in the rise of extreme sentiments from right winged parties. One such party in Germany is expected to have seats in 8 or 9% of the parliament following this election, their ideas are as off-base as defending the border to the point of death with arms, open to shooting migrants attempting to enter. Time.
Scanning the audience, I get a sense of tried minds. The audience is being stretched, attempting to keep speed with wave after wave of point/counterpoint. The third speaker for the Opposition taking her spot at the podium.
The notion that many arriving in Germany are in fact coming for economic reasons is acknowledged. The Opposition addresses this issue head on, the speaker proceeds with arguments against anti-immigration sentiments. First, that the idea that immigrants hurt the economy. There is no evidence for this she asserts. Economists universally agree that immigration increases the wealth of the nation – statistics from the United States refute the idea that immigrants are lazy. Secondly, that those immigrants take jobs from natives. Not so, while immigrants do assume the jobs previously held by natives, this in turn, allows them to pursue better positions. New jobs are always created in the economy. Third, that immigrants decrease wages; with increased supply of labor, won’t wages go down? Negative, GDP can actually be doubled by opening borders. To conclude: given all these clear benefits, it does not make sense to hinder the migration of people because of the bias that such an action will allow violence to enter. She takes her seat. Time.
The Proposition rises to take the podium for the last time. Where do I start? He says, exuding the air of one confident in his position. Is it just to deny an entire community because of the risk that a few of them may be criminals? Well, there is after all, a difference between criminals and terrorist. Criminals may steal and maybe murder but a few seeking to do terror can be catastrophic. The first responsibility of political leaders is to protect one’s own citizens. Merkel is running a government, not a humanitarian organization. When you are German Chancellor, you cannot be a Universalist.
He proceeds to recap the points, the points the Proposition has made. Emphasizing that history suggests that this project will not work, hope for healthy assimilation is not enough. An open door policy is reckless, and a bad idea! He takes his seat, swagger intact.
Opposition: As to the mess that we now see – the question is not the policy, but the ancillary factors going into its execution. The fact that these migrants walked from Greece is notable! We are defending the attitude of hospitality and acceptance. No one is saying the solution is perfect. Regarding of the specific wording of this debate, he reiterates that it is not an “open door” policy. All migrants are not expected to settle permanently in Germany, and deportation has doubled, many times families are divided, there is a process in all this – it is not a free for all. What Merkel has done is not a mistake, it is a miracle. This issue cannot be divorced from broader happenings in Europe. There is a pre-existing sentiment of anti-immigration, and it is due to this that we are even questioning this policy. It should be regarded as an obligation.
Question. Permitted: Are you suggesting that the immediate neighbors of Germany should be welcoming migrants (rather than making them walk)?
As to fear-mongering, saying that anti-Israeli, anti-Western migrants are a threat is to ignore the reality of what we are seeing, which is the opposite. Refugees are being harassed, their residences burned, and busses assaulted. What does this tell us? The Opposition rests.
The formal debate is over. Disputatio has run its course. The age old strategy of argument to counter-argument to conclusion has played out. As to the decided conclusion, we see the democratic process (perhaps a new addition to the process seen in Leuven’s 15th-century scholastic theology debates); each audience member submits their vote. The organizer announces that a wine and juice reception is in order. Tension subsides and the audience proceeds to mingle amidst the luxury of wine at HIW, an example of good fortune here in Leuven.
The opposing position is the voted-upon winner of the dispute. The news eventually emerges in conversation that the members of Proposition team were selected to defend the proposition just for the sake of the debate. Perhaps their true sentiments are also tinged with Merkylesqe altruism.
These disputations will continue to surface in Leuven. The HIW Debating Society is planning for ongoing regular debates. Their next debate is Wednesday, March 16 at the Philosophy Institute (Kardinaal Mercierplein 2, 3000 Leuven, Belgium). The topic is Brexit: on whether UK voters should support England withdrawing from the European Union.
Photos by Beatrice Thompson