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Pulling Up the German Welcome Mat?

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By Michael Bröning

BERLIN – This is Berlin’s summer of discontent. Exactly one year ago, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s principled decision to open Germany’s borders to refugees stranded in Hungary impressed millions of people around the world. As ordinary Germans flocked to train stations and border posts to greet people seeking shelter from war, distress, and misery, Germany’s “Welcome Culture” was saluted as a truly inspiring example of humanitarianism.

One year later, the tide has turned – above all against Merkel, now in her 11th year in office. Her credo, “Wir schaffen das” (“We can do it”), inspired thousands of volunteers to open their hearts – and often their homes – to refugees. Now, however, her assertive optimism is confronting a dramatic political backlash.

Sunday’s election in Merkel’s home state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern – widely seen as a test run for Germany’s federal election in September 2017 – was devastating for her Christian Democratic Union. While all mainstream parties suffered severe losses, the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) finished second, winning an unprecedented 21% of the vote and relegating the CDU to third place.

The Mecklenburg result was not an isolated outcome. In March, the AfD, founded in 2013 as a Euroskeptic party critical of the Greek bailout, sent shockwaves through the country when it finished second or third in regional elections in three German states. Germany’s position in the refugee crisis has transformed the AfD into a staunch anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim movement, supported by disillusioned voters from across the political spectrum.

Current national polls put the AfD’s support at 15%, making it the second strongest party in eastern Germany and the third largest political force overall. Against this background, Berlin’s regional election in two weeks is now fueling growing concern among Germany’s government coalition, which comprises the center-right CDU and the center-left Social Democrats.

The two parties’ “grand coalition,” according to recent polls, is grand in name only. Public support for the government has fallen below 50%, and there is much speculation about whether Merkel will seek reelection as her party’s candidate for another term.

Clearly, public dissatisfaction with Germany’s stance on the ongoing refugee crisis is at the root of this upheaval. Many Germans still favor a compassionate approach toward refugees. But enthusiasm has largely given way to skepticism, anger, and polarization. After a controversial European Union deal with Turkey was put in place to keep refugees out, many Germans wonder whether the political and moral costs of doing business with an increasingly autocratic Turkish leader are too high.

Moreover, spreading disillusionment stems from the confrontation of aspirations with practicalities. For many, Germany’s warm welcome to refugees was unquestionably heartfelt. For others, it was an opportunity to embrace a post-nationalist identity and overcome the weight of the past. But it was never entirely free of self-interest. In particular, the Welcome Culture was at least partly based on anticipated economic and demographic benefits.

In the summer of 2015, a chorus of German business leaders pointed out the long-term advantages of open borders in overcoming the country’s persistent shortage of skilled workers. But the long term means just that, and whatever benefits it may bring have yet to materialize. A recent report points to a sobering fact: all 30 major companies trading on the Frankfurt Stock Exchange have so far employed a paltry 54 refugees.

Likewise, the cultural impact of absorbing an influx of refugees on this scale is becoming apparent. While many initially embraced the influx as a shift towards a more pluralist and culturally diverse country, the mass harassment of women in Cologne on New Year’s Eve proved a turning point for public opinion. This summer’s wave of Islamist-inspired terror further contributed to a widespread sense of insecurity and skepticism regarding the challenges of integrating hundreds of thousands of Muslims (even though many refugees are themselves survivors of Islamist terror).

In response, Germany’s political class has started to change course. Just last week, Merkel assured the CDU’s executive board that the refugee crisis of 2015 will not be repeated, and that “in the next few months, the most important [thing] is to return refugees.” On Sunday, Germany’s interior minister Thomas de Maizière announced a proposal to “send refugees back to Greece.”

Already in February, the Bundestag voted to change Germany’s benign asylum laws, thereby suspending family reunification for refugees, decreasing monthly cash benefits, facilitating deportation of failed asylum-seekers, and designating Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia as safe countries of origin. Finally, in July, the Bundestag enacted a controversial law that threatens to reduce welfare benefits for asylum-seekers who refuse to attend “integration courses.”

Most recently, the public debate has shifted and now focuses on the loyalty of Germans with a Turkish background, and prohibiting full face and body coverings in public places – a policy that according to opinion polls, more than 80% of Germans would support.

While Germany’s dramatic change of course from last year’s open-border, open-arms policy was perhaps inevitable, it is unclear whether the government’s recent steps will take the wind out of the far right’s sails. As Germany’s Welcome Culture recedes from the horizon, the populist ship appears to be gaining speed.

Michael Bröning is Head of the International Policy Department of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, a political foundation affiliated with the Social Democratic Party of Germany.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2016.