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Friday, 22 January 2016

The Ugly Awakening of Cologne – How Euphoria turns into Panic

The general euphoria and enthusiasm with which the German population welcomed arriving refugees last summer(nearly one million), has suddenly vanished and turned into a collective feeling of anxiety and increasing suspicion. Questions arose very quickly if the men from the Cologne mob on New Year’s Eve were refugees who came to Germany last summer, or if those were other immigrants living as asylum seekers for a longer period of time. As it turned out, Cologne was not the only venue for these assaults. Similar incidents where reported from Stuttgart and Hamburg, though not as extreme as in Cologne.

The events of Cologne on New Year’s eve was Germany’s “9/11” – if you want to dramatize the impact of it on Germany’s society and public discussions. It has been nearly a month since the dramatic incidents at Cologne train station where at New Year’s Eve a mob of North African and Arab immigrants have sexually attacked and robbed women. Official numbers indicated that around 1,000 men have gathered at the square between the main train station and Cologne Cathedral, hunting women and physically harassing them. In the view of the masses, the outnumbered police was unable to cope with this security challenge. Even female police offers quickly became victims of the mob.

From Open Arms to Closing Borders
The first reactions were predictable. Conservative politicians immediately called for a change of the current refugee and asylum policy and demand a more restrictive approach. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s infamous refugee slogan “We can do it” (“Wir schaffen das”), which she repeated during her New Year’s speech just a few hours before the incidents, now sounds like a desperate call not to give up and to prevail as the presumably last standing EU country willing to accept refugees. In the meantime, more and more EU member states consider a closure of their borders, as very recently stated by Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz.

Merkel’s support in the own party is diminishing, more fellow party members of CDU and CSU call for a recall of Merkel’s refugee policy. Desperate to keep her power within the own party she remains significantly silent and proceeds with her policy despite the growing resistance. However, she needed to do some alterations to keep the growing resistance in her own party silent. Asylum applications of refugees from the Maghreb countries Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia will be processed quicker, in order to deport them sooner. As it turned out, some refugees managed to get registered in Germany various times and in some other individual cases – as in the killed Islamist in Paris a few weeks ago – they had several identities.

This week, Austria announced to implement a cap of 37,500 refugees this year, which is one third of last year’s overall refugee count. That leaves Germany all alone in its refugee policy – with vanishing inner-party and public support for Merkel. The Bavarian CSU Party (Christian Social Union) strongly supports Austria’s unilateral decision and strongly advocates for a similar solution.

Panic Move to the Right – Feeding the Dumb
With elections in three federal states coming up in March (in Saxony, Rhineland-Palatinate and in Baden-Württemberg), everyone anticipates a drastic shift of voters towards the extreme political right – in particular towards the right-wing populist AfD Party (“Alternative for Germany” – “Alternative für Deutschland”). Recent polls indicate more than 10 percent for the AfD, clearly a result of the refugee policy and in particular of the Cologne incidents. A concerned and emotionally terrified part of the German population, which feels not only disappointed of the political establishment, but distrust the governments’ ability to cope with the integration of the refugee masses, move away from the conservative bias of CDU towards the right wingers and could potentially cause a political earthquake in Germany. Even though the next general elections won’t be held before autumn 2017, these three upcoming elections – taking place simultaneously on the 13th of March – could have a profound effect on the Merkel administration and mark the beginning of a serious crisis for the German post WW2 political system.

To gain votes, the AfD does not hesitate to present what they pretend to call “true facts” about the refugee situation in Germany. Stating that more than 1.5 million unregistered refugees are currently moving throughout the country and that each family received up to 5,000 Euros every month from the state, it creates an artificial state of fear and “over-alienation” which needed to be fought. This way of twisting the facts and making up wrong numbers as an election campaign strategy is – in times of increasing uncertainty and rising fear in public – a welcoming instrument for the AfD to trigger the sensation of paralysation and panic.

Taking a look on social media, an increasing number of xenophobic comments have been registered where users do not hide their identity any longer and drag more users to follow and share their racist comments. This could be an instrument of recruiting supporters for any right wing extremist party or movement, making it socially acceptable to publically spread hatred throughout the web. According to journalist and Spiegel columnist Sascha Lobo, this phenomenon is predominantly a sociological gathering of “dumb” people determined to spread their own xenophobic thoughts and making them acceptable through a broad public online-audience. This is being used by the AfD, as well as by the xenophobic PEGIDA movement (“Patriotic Europeans against Islamisation of the Occident” = “Patriotische Europäer gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlandes”). The brown mob therefore is not only spreading on the roads, but also in the web, and the numbers of dumb brown posts is growing.

Can we really? A Threat for Merkel, a Threat for Social Peace
Merkel’s popularity rates are dropping, so does the support of her own party. Some CDU delegates are already speculating that Merkel might eventually resign from office, but leaving the question unanswered who might replace her. Former Bavarian Prime Minister Günther Beckstein made a rather delicate point by stating in a recent radio interview that Merkel’s unilateral refugee policy was a “dictatorial move” and not made in accordance with the federal states. In a single event, a Bavarian district chief executive made a very striking move to protest against the alleged “top down imposed” refugee relocation among the federal states, by putting 31 refugees on a bus and driving them singlehandedly to Berlin. Disregarding the obvious challenges for municipalities regarding the accommodation and administrative care of refugees, this kind of instrumentality is an indication that some individual local politicians are ready to lose human decency – a dangerous development that could cause free riders to do something similar. As a side effect, these actions will seriously damage social stability in the country, on a local and a national level.

The biggest threat though is not only the rise of right wingers, but above all how the German public will behave towards refugees and asylum seekers from now on. Will they still welcome them as enthusiastically as before? Can the population really cope with the masses of refugees as propagated by Merkel’s “We can do it” mantra? Or will the xenophobes prevail and infiltrate a feeling of overall fear and distrust towards any Arab and Muslim person living in Germany and violently shake the political and social system in its very foundations?

Eventually, the refugee crisis that started last year is definitely changing Germany already, though not the way Merkel wished.

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