How the refugee crisis is shaking up Germany’s politics, and its place within Europe

With a 2017 election on the horizon, Celine Cooper speaks with Michael Bröning about the current state of politics in Germany and the ‘tremendous polarization’ of the population when it comes to opinions on taking in refugees.  

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October 7, 2016
Merkel attends a debate at the Bundestag, the lower house of parliament, in Berlin, Germany in this March 19, 2015. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch/Files

Germany opened its borders last year to one of the most impactful migrant movements in recent European history, fuelling the rapid ascent of the populist right-wing party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). From Donald Trump in the United States to the Brexit win in the United Kingdom, the political shifts in Germany fit into a wider global phenomenon of growing public anger, distrust of institutions and anti-establishment sentiment.

At last week’s Global Think Tank Summit in Montreal, columnist Celine Cooper spoke with Michael Bröning, Head of Department for Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, a political foundation affiliated with the Social Democratic Party of Germany, to get his take on the conditions under which the AfD gathered momentum and how the political mood in the country has shifted since last year.

Over one million migrants have arrived in Germany since Chancellor Angela Merkel announced her government’s open-door refugee policy in August of 2015. Spurred by the war in Syria, hundreds of thousands of migrants had poured into Europe by land and sea and found themselves stranded in Austria. Braced with the slogan “Wir schaffen das” (“We can do this”), Merkel argued that the country's history imparted a moral responsibility to help people fleeing war and persecution. 

But one year on, Germany’s Willkommenskultur, or welcome culture – a term ushered into the lexicon to describe the genuine enthusiasm among many Germans to welcome refugees – appears to be fraying at the seams. Where did it start to unravel?

Parliament was never asked to vote on Merkel’s refugee policy, and her decision to open the borders destabilized the political system, Michael Bröning explained.

“Parties didn’t know how to respond. If you’re a left-leaning party, and the Chancellor says open the borders, what are you supposed to do? You’re supposed to be more right wing than the right wing Chancellor on this question? The green party was all of a sudden happy with the German chancellor. Everything was shaken up in the political system. [Alternative für Deutschland] has basically benefited from that.”

So what is the feeling in Germany now? 

“The current situation is one of tremendous polarization,” Bröning said. “The refugee issue has polarized not only political parties but any kind of social institution. Momentum is clearly shifting toward a more critical approach. Right now polls say about 80 percent of Germans are unhappy with the way that Chancellor Merkel is, and has, been handling the crisis and you can see how the government is changing course. Wir schaffen das was a call to be optimistic, a can-do attitude, the idea that Germany is a strong country. We have managed other crises and we can manage this one. But she backtracked from this slogan…because public discontent has been growing tremendously.” 

Merkel has also been reproached for imposing a certain isolationist position upon Germany by not properly consulting with other European partners.

“Germans felt very disappointed by what they perceived as a lack of enthusiasm to share the burden in Europe. Basically, there was only Sweden…and then Austria for some time. But then there was a change of government in Austria and Austria basically closed the borders,” Bröning explained. “Germans have felt very much left alone. […] There was also a tone of self-righteousness, this moral feeling that we are doing what is good and proper and decent here, and all of you haven’t really learned what it means to show compassion in times of crisis.”

"Germans felt very disappointed by what they perceived as a lack of enthusiasm to share the burden in Europe."

The mood has shifted palpably. Merkel’s assertion that Germany’s borders couldn’t be secured has alienated conservative voters, including many within her own party. While it’s true that most migrants are Syrian, many undocumented migrants have also come from Northern Africa, the Middle East and Asia. The vast majority are young, unaccompanied men. Hundreds of thousands have gone missing. There are growing concerns about strains on resources and public services such as housing, health and employment programs, and social tensions over internal security have increased in recent months. Events on New Year’s Eve in Cologne, when hundreds of women celebrating in the central square were surrounded, sexually harassed and robbed by groups of Middle Eastern and North African men, has been widely acknowledged as a turning point in public opinion. The public expressed anger at Germany’s police, government and media for not sharing information about the crimes accurately or quickly enough.

“It was widely perceived as a failure of independent media. There were these incidents and then for a couple of days there was no reporting on it, and so people felt, well, this is exactly what’s happening: you’re not being honest in your dealing with this topic.”

“A Hamburg media institute analyzed reporting on the refugee [situation],” Bröning continued. “They looked at about 16,000 media stories that were published in the course of 2015. They found that more than 80 percent had a positive spin on it, and only six percent were critical. If you have a media landscape where only six percent of articles published are giving voice to concerns and the rest [are] basically being more activism than journalism, then that’s a problem.”

Then, in the summer of 2016, four different attacks – three in Bavaria and one in Baden-Wuerttemberg – appeared to have links to male asylum seekers and possibly with the Islamic State. The fledging Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) has capitalized on these concerns. Formed in 2013, the right-wing populist party whose anti-migrant and anti-Islam positions have unsettled many in Europe was originally focused on its opposition to the Euro. They were the only political party in parliament at the time questioning a European consensus on the Greek bail out. When that issue waned, so did their fortunes. But then hundreds of thousands of migrants arrived at Europe’s doorstep.

“You can trace it in the opinion polls,” Bröning told me. “They were at three percent, then the crisis happened and bang, they’re at eight, at nine, at ten percent. And they’re still growing. The most recent poll has them at 14 percent, which makes them the third strongest party in Germany.”

The waxing fortunes of AfD ahead of the 2017 election carries with it the potential to fundamentally reshape not only the German political landscape but also its orientation within the EU. “It will make finding a government very difficult in Germany,” he said. “We will have elections and then we will have seven or six parties in parliament. Coalition making will be very difficult.”

Policies regarding migrant flows have also taken a turn. “Germany has declared a range of countries safe third countries (Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia). We are working on repatriation agreements and we have the Turkey deal. We are silently backing the closure of the Balkan route. The Chancellor has also declared that what we saw last year is not going to repeat itself.”

For the Chancellor, it may be too late. In early September, in what could be a harbinger of things to come, Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) were dealt a stinging defeat during state elections at the hands of AfD in her home state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. The AfD finished in second place – ahead of the CDU – and garnered an unprecedented 21 percent of the vote. A few weeks later, the AfD entered Berlin's 149-seat state assembly, earning 14.1 percent of the vote in Berlin's state election

Meanwhile, the war in Syria shows little sign of abating.