View from Berlin: Days of disillusionment

After Cologne, reducing immigrant numbers and progress on intergration key for Merkel in 2016.

To the German public the events of Cologne on New Year’s Eve – sexual harassment and robbing of women by groups of migrants – have come as a shock. The effect has been deepened by reports in the first days of 2016 about similar assaults on women in other German cities and revelations on the inability of law enforcement authorities to deal with the challenge and mismanagement on the part of the local police. What has also significantly influenced the debate was the non-attribution of the offenses to migrants based on the fear it would lead to strong anti-immigration sentiments.

In effect, the events have lead to disillusionment about the current immigration challenge, demystifying much of the euphoria that shaped the German public debate in September 2015. For Chancellor Angela Merkel and her government, the change has created a new sense of urgency regarding the control of the inflow of migrants, but at the same time it has paved the way for a broader consensus in the country on tightening the rules and regulations regarding migration.

The hype about Germany’s welcoming culture of last autumn is gone. Now, it is more clearly understood what had been overlooked in the national and international coverage back then. The impressive volunteer engagement in receiving migrants and the broad wave of sympathy for Merkel’s humanitarian gesture were a response to the disturbing number of assaults against migrants, notably setting houses designated for migrants on fire. Most mainstream Germans wanted to distance themselves from such acts as they wanted to distance themselves from the weekly rallies anti-immigration and anti-Islam activists had launched, mostly in the east of the country. Attending counter-rallies to xenophobic manifestations does not appeal to many citizens, as it bears similarities to the radicalisation of the political fringes in the late 1920s. Rather, many Germans felt that providing aid to arriving refugees was a much more adequate way of expressing what Germany is and wants to be today.

In light of the Cologne events, a sober consensus is forming around four ideas.

First, there is agreement on reducing the number of arrivals. Merkel will have to deliver on this, and, as long as her government can achieve this, her position on not setting a specific ceiling and on keeping the basic legal framework on asylum as it is will be accepted by a substantial majority of the public.

Secondly, the public broadly shares the assessment of interior ministers on the federal and state levels on the need to more closely monitor new arrivals. This will force the government to upgrade its demands on EU partners to comply with Schengen rules or else introduce permanent border controls. Merkel’s initial goal of preserving the integrity of the Schengen regime by taking in a large number of refugees could thus be contradicted by her own government being forced by events to suspend Schengen.

A third layer of consensus has emerged over applying the existing laws and regulations more consistently. Until now, asylum seekers whose claim had not been approved were rarely deported. Now, there will be more pressure to send back people in spite of the difficulties of either having to relocate them to other EU countries, countries of departure before entering the EU or countries of origin. Here as well, the government has strong incentives to push for common practices among member states, knowing however that the consensus among Schengen member states is weak.

A fourth part of an emerging consensus has to do with integration. Some years ago, a lasting debate about a German “Leitkultur” (insufficiently translated as mainstream culture) divided the political spectrum, with conservatives tending to favour the notion, and Social Democrats and Greens strongly opposing it. They referred to the demand on immigrants to not just respect all laws of their host country but also to subscribe to the soft laws and conventions of daily life in Germany. In the debates, reference was often made to the role of women in migrant communities, such as wearing head scarfs, withdrawing girls from athletic activities in schools, not allowing women to work out of the house, to name but a few examples.

Now, this debate is back, though in a new sense, because the number of arrivals is so high, and the evidence of non-integration of some parts of the population with a migration background is striking. Also, over the past decade, there have been strong initiatives by many civil society organisations to strengthen integration of youth and women in particular. Compared to the old debate about a “Leitkultur”, a much more pragmatic understanding of cultural integration had developed, focussing strongly on language skills, education and participation in public life. This will now be seen as more urgent, but also more difficult at the same time, given the large number of people.

According to the most recent polls, still about half of the public is confident that the large migration will be absorbed and integrated successfully. The general openness of the people has been surprisingly stable after the events of Cologne. Their sensitivity to the difficulties and challenges, however, has much increased. Regionally, the support for anti-immigration fringe parties has risen, with the “Alternative für Deutschland” (AfD) now soaring at 12-15 percent in parts of east Germany. These figures will push both parties of the grand coalition in Berlin to deliver on their goals and public expectations as outlined above. If and when they do, the support for fringe parties on the right is likely to recede to previous levels in most parts of the country.

2016 will thus be shaped by two tasks – to reduce the number of new arrivals significantly through actions on the EU and international level, and to visibly progress on integrating the immigrants who will stay and return those whose claims are unfounded.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Head, ECFR Berlin
Senior Policy Fellow

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