The spate of violence on New Year’s Eve in Germany has caused a national scandal and created rifts within Angela Merkel’s governing coalition.
The wave of violence which occurred in various German cities during New Year’s Eve has further galvanized Germany’s political class to question the nature and scope of the country’s refugee policies. Police in Cologne, Stuttgart, Hamburg, and Bielefeld reported 579 incidents, forty per cent of which involved sexual violence against women. The scale of the attacks and the ineffectual police response has caused a national scandal.
While such a spate of debauched revelry would be cause for concern irrespective of the perpetrator’s origins, the fact that many were recent arrivals has sparked a national debate. According to German police “those at the focus of criminal investigations by the police are mostly people from North African countries. The majority of them are asylum seekers and people who are in the country illegally.”
Whereas the vast majority of the over one million refugees Germany has accepted are law abiding, the scale, apparent pre-meditated nature of the incidents, and the demographic profile of the assailants has brought refugees in general under intense scrutiny. Concerns about cultural integration, attitudes towards women, and crime rates are causing many in Germany to question the government’s stance on the refugee crisis.
Merkel vows tough stance on foreign criminals
In the wake of the assaults, Angela Merkel has announced a tougher stance on criminal foreigners. To this end, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the lead faction in Germany’s coalition government, called a special party plenum to discuss the issue. Said plenum saw the CDU announce its support for measures to make it easier to deport foreign criminals, noting that events in Cologne had informed the tone of the discussions.
Specifically, the CDU seeks to revoke residency for asylum seekers and refugees who are “legitimately sentenced to a prison term or probation due to criminal activities.” This stance strengthens current legislation and was advocated by CDU chairman Volker Kauder.
Currently German law only allows for deportation if a person has been given a sentence of at least three years. Moreover, in many instances criminal individuals cannot be sent back to their countries of origin if doing so would endanger their lives (as per the protections afforded said individuals by the 1951 UN Refugee Convention). Source country governments may also refuse to accept the repatriation of refugees.
Interestingly, Sigmar Gabriel, leader of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) has voiced opinions on the matter which appear at odds with the party’s centre-left orientation. Gabriel has argued that if source countries refuse to accept deported individuals their development aid should be reduced as a result. This comes on the heels of Gabriel’s statement that he is firmly against the notion of German taxpayers having to pay for the incarceration of foreign criminals.
Moreover, the CDU favours the implementation of a ‘duty to integrate law’ which entails three main elements: firstly the increased use of video surveillance near potential hotspots or dangerous areas, secondly increased penalties for assaulting police and other security personnel, and lastly the implementation of random ID checks.
Merkel and CDU continue to oppose concrete refugee quota
These measures are an understandable reaction to recent events, although it is important to note that they are in many ways as symbolic as they are practical. For instance the use of random ID checks as a dragnet is already possible in most German states. The government wants to be seen as reacting swiftly to public concern, but Berlin is prudent enough not to dance to the tune of populism. Consequently, Merkel has continued to voice her categorical opposition to the imposition of any specific refugee quota or ceiling, although she has promised to reduce the number of refugees which Germany accepts.
While Merkel acknowledges that current rates of refugee admittance (3000-4000 per day) are unsustainable, she argues that it is foolish to commit to a concrete limit in advance, as this removes Germany’s flexibility on the matter. This position is one that CDU members are largely behind: during the three hour emergency meeting on the issue, not a single CDU member suggested implementing a quota. CDU chairman Armin Laschet explains the party’s stance:
“the Karlsruhe commitments to a reduction of the number of refugees remain correct. Even with an admission ceiling one could not have prevented the New Year’s attacks. In Cologne we are criticizing an organizational failure; one that will have consequences.”
Cracks in the coalition
Currently, Merkel remains in control of her caucus; however, she is facing increasing pressure (both internally and from coalition partners) to elaborate on her promises to reduce the refugee influx. CDU caucus members are pushing for a definitive plan by the summer. Some CDU members, such as Reiner Haselhoff, minister president for Saxony Anhalt, have openly challenged Merkel’s stance, with Haselhoff calling for a maximum of 400,000 refugees for 2016.
These sentiments are more vocally expressed by the Christian Social Union in Bavaria (CSU), the CDU’s Bavarian sister-party and coalition partner. Markus Söder, Bavaria’s CSU minister for finances, development, and homeland has called for a limit of 300,000 – with CSU leader Horst Seehofer going even further with a proposal for 200,000. Seehofer has also informed the media that the CSU will fight tooth and nail for said reductions.
Politicking aside, these CSU proposals would, if implemented see Germany reach its annual quota by the end of February, causing a logistical and security nightmare. To add to Merkel’s headache, the CSU has managed to antagonize the SPD, with leader Sigmar Gabriel protesting that “the CSU’s constant fear-mongering and their one-upmanship with ridiculous and unworkable refugee policy proposals is ultimately wind in the sails for the xenophobic Alternative für Deutschland.”
Far-right groups on the rise, but remain political pariahs
The Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) is a far-right group which has been at the centre of Islamophobic protests. AfD along with the affiliated Pegida (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident) movement have staged protests in the wake of the New’s Years attacks, clashing with riot police and necessitating the use of water cannons. Both represent the outgrowths of growing xenophobic sentiments in Germany, although remain minor players politically.
As Germany deals with the struggle between reactionary forces and humanitarianism, this week saw another story that perfectly embodies this struggle. The same week as the New Year’s violence, the Munich Institute for History released its two volume critical edition of Mein Kampf, the first time in 70 years Hitler’s opus has been available in Germany. Pre-orders of the 2000 plus page, €59 book have already passed 15,000, outstripping the initial print-run of 4000.
This level of demand could be viewed with worry, yet the aim of the new edition is to utterly refute, and de-mystify the book for Germans, demonstrating the kinds of falsehoods and half-truths that are used in propaganda. In this light, German demand for the book is to be lauded as the perfect inoculation against modern day extremism.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Markus Söder was minister president of Bavaria: he is in fact Bavaria’s minister for finances, development, and homeland.