‘Wir schaffen das’ – during a whole year, Chancellor Merkel withstood any criticism from inside and outside her party and stuck to her credo of ‘we can do it’ as a response to the challenge of coping with hundreds of thousands refugees – many of them fleeing the war in Syria. However, the ever increasing pressure from both the right-wing, anti-immigration and anti-Muslim Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) and her junior coalition partner, the Bavarian CSU, to change course in the refugee crisis have taken its toll: While her conservative CDU had to face one electoral defeat after another in recent months, the AfD has rushed from one record result to the next. Having entered already ten out of sixteen federal state parliaments the AfD is clearly here to stay. In September alone, the AfD finished second in the federal state elections in Merkel’s home state Mecklenburg-Vorpommern winning with an unprecedented 21 percent and relegating Merkel’s CDU to third place; just two weeks later, in the traditionally left-wing, liberal Berlin, the AfD scored an impressive 14 percent leaving just four percent between them and the CDU.
The election results were widely seen as referendums on Merkel’s approach in the refugee crisis. Thus, Merkel felt increasingly forced to respond to this serious political setback: carefully choosing her words in an address to the press this Monday, a day after another election defeat, this time in the German capital, she admitted shortcomings and distanced herself clearly from her own ‘Wir schaffen das’ mantra that stood for her approach in the refugee crisis as no other in the course of the past year. ‘Much has been interpreted into this […] sentence. So much that I hardly want to repeat it,’ she said adding that some people felt ‘provoked’ by the phrase even though she meant it in an encouraging way. In her view, the sentence had been widely misunderstood and turned into an ‘empty phrase’.
Back in summer 2015, the situation was clearly different: Merkel’s crucial decision to open Germany’s borders to thousands of refugees that were stranded along the Western Balkans route was widely considered to be a principled decision based on humanitarian considerations. Her slogan was intended to send an encouraging and appreciative message to the German population that received the arriving refugees with open arms demonstrating its solidarity and empathy. Thousands of helping hands supported the migrants in adapting to their host country while Germans and international media alike celebrated the German ‘Willkommenskultur’ (‘Welcoming Culture’) which at that time marked a stark difference to other particularly central and eastern European countries where at the same time fences were erected.
However, the initial ‘refugees welcome’ attitude soon gave way to a growing anti-immigration sentiment leaving Germans highly polarised about the right course in the refugee crisis. While the Chancellor stuck to her principles and repeated her mantra over and over again, national mood soured rapidly. At the latest, after the New Year’s Eve sexual assaults in Cologne public opinion shifted significantly. The cultural impact of absorbing such an unprecedented number of mainly Muslim refugees became more and more subject of a heated debate. Those – and this remains to be the large part of the German population – still considering the influx of refugees an enrichment for German society and, on the other side, those criticising Merkel’s refugee to be irresponsible and a denial of reality have been opposing each other more and more irreconcilably. This summer’s Islamist-inspired terror attacks in Würzburg and Ansbach further fuelled this conflict as the feeling of insecurity to which I already pointed in one of my previous blog posts has further spread among the German population.
Polls confirm the strong criticism of Merkel’s ‘Wir schaffen das’ approach: a recently published Allensbach poll found that only 71 percent of the interviewees believe that it is not likely to integrate those refugees that have arrived in the past twelve months in German society. In August 2016, 65 percent of interviewees in an Infratest Dimap Poll said they are not content with Chancellor Merkel’s refugee and asylum policy. In another poll published in September 2016, even 82 percent of the interviewees demand a course correction in her policy – 28 percent favour a fundamental change while 54 call for partially changing her prevalent approach. As a consequence, after years of high approval ratings, also Merkel’s popularity plummeted from 75 percent in April 2015 to 45 percent in September 2016.
Against this background, dropping her ‘Wir schaffen das’ mantra has to be understood as a political gesture and peace offering to her Bavarian allies from the CSU that have been increasingly vocal in attacking Merkel and calling for a change of course of her refugee policy. Indeed, distancing herself from her defiant slogan is intended to send a clear sign of understanding that she has heard the concerns of her critics and that she is willing to invest more in communicating her policies to citizens. Nevertheless, more crucially, Merkel remained clear that – in substance – she will stick to her policy and did not offer any significant policy concessions. Even though she admitted openly that her country partly faced an uncontrolled and unregistered inflow of migrants in the summer of 2015 and that the closure of the Western Balkan route had a positive effect on controlling the inflow of migrants to Germany (a strategy that she previously had criticised at numerous occasions), Merkel reconfirmed the humanitarian principles driving her refugee policy.
To be clear here, however: in fact – even though widely overlooked – Merkel herself has already changed her approach in the refugee crisis towards a more restrictive policy: in the past months, the Bundestag decided on tougher measures on stemming the asylum flows (i.e. temporarily suspending family reunification for refugees, facilitating faster procedures to deport asylum seekers from safe countries of origin, etc.), and on the integration of immigrants stipulating that refusal of an asylum seeker to participate in an integration class can lead to cuts in benefits. In addition, interior minister Thomas de Maizière recently announced to place a main focus in the next months on the deportation of refugees to Greece where they first entered the EU.
Merkel’s warm words are only partially an admission of policy failure – it is an attempt to close the ranks in her own party and with the CSU and rebrand her refugee policy in the run-up of the Federal Elections in 2017 in which the topic will certainly feature prominently. The question remains, however, whether this peace gesture is enough to meet the demands of the CSU or whether the Bavarian allies are willing to continue to escalate the conflict with Merkel over the refugee crisis? Merkel may have changed her vocabulary, but her statement on Monday was also once again an implicit rejection of the central CSU demand of a cap of 200.000 migrants a year.
Reaching out to an increasingly sceptical public, a key asset in this rebranding strategy could be emotions. Merkel, a physician by training, who in her eleven-year long career as German chancellor has been hailed for her sober analysis of facts, but also criticised for her obstinacy and wait-and-see approach to politics seems to have drawn a lesson from the harsh and sometimes irrational criticism of populists from the right in the past months. The AfD in particular has ignited the fear among concerned Germans implanting the seed that the German government had lost the control in managing the refugee crisis. They have frequently made the link between this loss of control and the terrorist attacks in Paris, Brussels, Nice, Ansbach or Würzburg and other longstanding integration challenges with Muslim migrants. Facts do not matter anymore when the politics of fear increasingly gains ground and a subjective reality prevails: neither the sharp drop of refugee arrivals to Germany nor the more efficient handling of asylum procedures in the course of time do matter to citizens in their electoral decisions. Votes are casted solely based on Merkel’s decision not to close Germany’s borders. Now she is trying to find a way to reconnect with citizens: ‘People say that we live in “post-factual times” […] Thus it would not be wise to respond [to the criticism] with hard facts. I would like to respond with a feeling: I am absolutely sure, that we will get out of this admittedly complicated phase better then we entered it. Germany will change as we will do if we are not made of stone. But Germany will not be shaken at its foundations.’ Promoting a positive attitude towards change in the face of the populist surge: sounds like a new mantra to be filled with life.
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