Refugees welcome? Merkel flip flops on migrants as chancellorship at stake

Refugees welcome? Merkel flip flops on migrants as chancellorship at stake
Merkel’s decision to open the borders to refugees in 2015 proved to be her most controversial move as chancellor. With an election looming, critics say it has caused discontent in Germany, a split in the EU… and Merkel’s own change of heart.

Just two weeks before the parliamentary election, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU party is comfortably ahead of all contenders. Her approval rating, however, has not yet fully recovered after going into a tailspin following her handling of the 2015 migrant crisis.

A move that should not have become a “moral litmus test” for Germans

Despite receiving thousands of asylum-seekers annually, Germany has been safeguarded by its geographic location and the Dublin agreement (which regulates asylum procedures in the EU), which left most refugees stranded in the EU’s coastal states, such as Greece and Italy. Berlin, however, began facing a new reality two years ago. As the migrant influx into Europe from the Middle East and North Africa gained momentum, the German chancellor announced a “humanitarian move,” opening Germany’s borders to migrants in August 2015.

Her decision may have been guided by other motives, Professor William Mallinson, a former British diplomat, told RT. “Germany’s attitude appears to be hypocritical: on the one hand, in October 2010, Angela Merkel announced that multiculturalism has ‘utterly failed.’ Yet, pandering to the electorate – or so she thought – she let in over one million immigrants only six years later,” Mallinson said. 

The change in Merkel’s rhetoric in the months to follow was merely an attempt “to jump onto the anti-immigration bandwagon because of the impending elections.”

And there is more to it, according to Doris Von Sayn-Wittgenstein, a German AfD politician. The decision to open the borders was ultimately not an attempt to deal with the crisis, but rather to give it a ‘let it happen’ option, she told RT, adding that the “the government is going by ‘Yes we can’ and is simply denying the problem.”

Angela Merkel herself, “for historical reasons,” most feared the media images of armed police and Bundeswehr soldiers confronting migrants at the border, Robin Alexander, a German political journalist and author of a best-seller on how the German government has dealt with refugees, claimed in his book. While not challenging the ‘open borders’ policy, Boris Palmer, mayor of Tuebingen, Germany, believes that Merkel was wrong to turn a decision “which was born from a necessity” into a “moral litmus test” for the nation.

Boiling point and ‘system breakdown’

The situation became so chaotic that at some point, authorities managed to “lose” 130,000 asylum-seekers who never turned up at the refugee centers to properly file asylum requests, German media reported, citing interior ministry figures. “Until now we have hundreds of thousands of people, where we don’t know the names. It is a breakdown of the state as a system,” former German Parliamentary State Secretary on Defense and ex-VP of the OSCE Assembly Willy Wimmer told RT.

The general public initially gave broad support for asylum-seekers, with the popular slogan ‘Refugees Welcome.’ However, the mood of the population began to change following allegations of mass sexual harassment during 2015 New Year’s Eve celebrations in Cologne. With 1,200 complaints filed, police were able to identify over 300 suspects, 109 of whom were asylum-seekers. However, German citizens were also among the suspects. The case triggered mass outrage, partly because it did not receive widespread coverage and proper reactions from the authorities until days afterward. This resulted in a wide-ranging national debate on refugees in Germany, as well as numerous protests, with the slogan ‘Merkel muss weg’ (Merkel must go) commonly heard.

Terrorism on the rise

The mass influx of refugees also had a major impact on Germany’s national security situation. Back in August 2016, the head of the Bavarian department of the domestic intelligence agency (BfV), Manfred Hauser, warned that “hit squads” linked to Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) might have infiltrated Germany posing as refugees.

His agency looked into “hundreds” of such cases, he said. In 2016, jihadists carried out five attacks, while the security services managed to prevent seven others, according to the BfV.

The deadliest incident occurred on December 19, 2016, when a 27-year-old rejected asylum-seeker – a Tunisian man named Anis Amri who had pledged allegiance to IS – plowed a truck into a Berlin Christmas market, leaving 12 people dead and dozens injured. The assailant, who had previously been on the radar of the police, managed to flee the scene and reach Italy, where he was gunned down by police.

Just months earlier, in July, a 27-year-old Syrian refugee detonated an explosive device outside a music festival in the town of Ansbach, killing himself and injuring 12 others. That same month, a 17-year-old Afghan refugee with an axe assaulted train passengers near Wurzburg in central Germany, leaving five people injured. IS claimed responsibility for all of the attacks. The terrorist threat remains high, and the country “must expect further attacks by individuals or terror groups” which “may occur any time,” the head of the BfV, Hans-Georg Maassen, warned this March.

Germany failed to make a necessary assessment of the security situation following the New Year’s Eve incidents in Cologne, political analyst John Bosnitch told RT. He added that the authorities did little to effectively accelerate integration. As “long as the migrants with a different cultural background continue to maintain their own bloc within the German society... the possibility of integrating this group is going to decline, and it is going to become a much worse problem in Germany than it is today,” he said.

Change of heart to appease voters?

It was only after the first terrorist attacks on German soil committed by asylum-seekers and mass anti-immigrant demonstrations with the ‘Merkel must go!’ slogan that the chancellor admitted her political course might be somewhat “flawed.” In September 2016, Merkel publicly acknowledged that her infamous “We can do it!” had become “an empty formula.” 

That came way too late, according to Mallinson. “She is now admitting that she was mistaken,” he old RT. “The damage has, however, already been done.”

Merkel then toughened her rhetoric on issues perceived as related to refugees. In December of the same year, Merkel announced that “the full-face [Muslim] veil must be banned wherever it is legally possible” and stressed that “all Germans that always lived here as well as those who just arrived” should obey the law, apparently referring to the surge in migrant crime. She added that German law “takes precedence” over Sharia law (Islamic law).

Following the deadly 2016 Berlin Christmas Market attack, Merkel promised to speed up deportations of failed Tunisian asylum-seekers, as Anis Amri, who plowed a truck into the market crowd, had come to Germany from Tunisia. The Chancellor also reiterated her promise to speed up deportations of all failed asylum-seekers.

The change in rhetoric appears less surprising if one looks at the polls following Merkel’s ‘open borders’ policy. According to Bild, in late 2014, Merkel enjoyed 75-percent support among Germans, while by late 2015, it fell by 26 percent and stood at 49 percent. Support continued to fall, reaching one of its lowest points in 2016. Other data provided by German Die Welt daily in 2016 showed that Merkel’s policy during the refugee crisis resulted in her gradually losing 12 percent of public support.

Angela Merkel is, in fact, now no longer pursuing “a policy of open borders, and that fits perfectly with the mood in the country,” Robin Alexander said. Despite saying that she would “make all the important decisions of 2015 the same way again,” the closer the election approaches, the more it seems that this is no longer the case. In fact, Merkel has been repeating the line: “What happened in 2015 cannot, should not and must not happen again.”

Political fallout in Germany

Merkel’s controversial open-border policy also gave a boost to right-wing elements within the country, including the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, and a popular movement called Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the Occident (PEGIDA).

The AfD has benefitted greatly from the migrant crisis, and may win as much as 10 percent of the seats in the upcoming Bundestag election, according to opinion polls. The party, despite its brief four-year history, is already represented in many regional parliaments in Germany. The party has on numerous occasions drawn accusations of xenophobia, and even being “Nazi.” This, however, simply indicates that people’s real problems are ignored, Doris von Sayn-Wittgenstein told RT. Essentially, people who complain about migrants nowadays are “called racist and liars,” Sayn-Wittgenstein said, adding that “our system can’t take these people [migrants] anymore.”

“The Germans don’t have the courage to choose another leader,” Iben Thranholm believes, adding that it remains a “mystery” to her.

Merkel’s ‘one person’ decision drives wedge in EU

To somehow fix the situation and “equally” distribute migrants among the EU, Merkel’s government has been pushing (along with Brussels) for specific quotas. The goal of resettling 160,000 migrants was approved by the EU in September 2015.

Hungarian PM Viktor Orban has become one of the most vocal critics of the quota system, warning that its implementation might result in “tens of millions” of migrants coming to Europe. His concerns were strongly echoed by Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Denmark.

Resistance is not only due to quota systems themselves, Wimmer believes, but due to the lack of proper negotiations and the inability of Merkel to consult with anyone before announcing her open-border policy. “Everything in Europe happened because of the decision of one person – Mrs. Merkel,” Wimmer told RT. “That is the reason why the Poles, Hungarians, and others refuse to take Merkel’s migrants.”

The European Court of Justice (ECJ) on Wednesday dismissed a challenge by Slovakia and Hungary against the EU’s relocation policy for asylum-seekers, reiterating the EU’s right to force its members to accept the migrant quotas. Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto slammed the decision, saying “Politics has raped European law.” 

Another measure aimed at “fixing” the migrant crisis was signing the EU-Turkey deal in March of last year. Under the agreement, all “irregular” migrants arriving in Greece – if they do not apply for asylum or get their application rejected – will be returned to Turkey. For each Syrian returned to Turkey, one must be resettled in the EU.

This agreement, however, offers no solution to the problem by merely “outsourcing” it, according to Oxfam and other humanitarian groups. This criticism focuses in particular on the fears of human rights abuses of people in Turkish refugee camps. Prior to the deal, Merkel hailed the progress made with Turkey on the refugee issue, also envisioning a boost to Ankara’s EU membership process. Since then, relations between Turkey on one side, and the EU and Berlin on the other, have deteriorated, raising serious fears that the deal is falling apart.

With all the twists and turns in recent years, Chancellor Merkel has shown herself to be a political chameleon, political analyst John Bosnitch told RT. “If she manages to be re-elected, then she will have to find a new shape to take, a new political form, in other words, to be a chameleon once again,” Bosnitch said.