Germany’s experience offers a lesson in the factors driving opposition to what is a mostly technocratic compact—one that had been crafted specifically in response to the very trends that are now opposing it.
Merkel had won plaudits internationally for her decision to welcome an enormous number of migrants into Germany at the height of Europe’s migration crisis, a move that remains her signature decision, and one that had defined the race to replace her as head of her party this month. Under pressure from the far-right, anti-immigration Alternative for Germany (AfD), which has waged a vocal campaign to stop the migration compact, some in Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, including one ultimately unsuccessful candidate to succeed her, had suggested that the issue of Germany joining the UN agreement should at least be open for discussion. Last month, the CDU chapter in the former East German state of Saxony-Anhalt voted to reject the compact entirely, with the state-level parliamentarian Lars-Jörn Zimmer saying it would effectively “open the gates unconditionally.”
Read: Is it time to bury Merkel’s legacy?
Ultimately, the CDU voted overwhelmingly in favor of the pact at its party congress in Hamburg last Friday—as did Germany’s Parliament, which held a similar debate in November. But the fact that the compact was even a topic for debate shows the extent to which rising right-wing populist parties set the terms of debate even when they’re not in power, as well as just how much of a lightning rod this nonbinding UN pact has become.
“We all know that illegal migration, because of the different development opportunities around the world, has caused part of the great fear in our countries,” Merkel said in Marrakech. “And these fears are being used by the opponents of this pact.”
More than half a dozen other European countries have also questioned whether to join the pact in the lead-up to this week’s UN gathering. The first domino to fall was Austria, which pulled out of the agreement in October despite negotiating it on behalf of all European Union countries (except Hungary). Austria’s chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, leads a coalition government with the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) and has shifted his country sharply to the right on migration since taking office a year ago. Since then, Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia have all said they will not sign it either.
In some places, the debate over the pact is having even more dire political consequences: Over the weekend, the New Flemish Alliance, a nationalist party, withdrew from Belgium’s center-right ruling coalition over the country’s decision to adopt the agreement, leaving the now-minority government on the verge of collapse.
Why is the UN compact, which is nonbinding, so controversial? Arguments against it include the idea that it will ultimately lead to a “human right to migration” and that domestic courts could use it in deciding immigration cases. That it explicitly states that it upholds national sovereignty and has no legal standing has done little to assuage those concerns.