Wednesday

21st Feb 2024

Dissent threatens Merkel’s refugee plans

  • An AfD protest against Merkel's asylum policy. (Photo: AfD)

German chancellor Angela Merkel may have thought she dodged a bullet last week when she managed to reach a compromise with hardliner elements in her centre-right coalition on the issue of migration.

But renewed protests and violence on the streets of Berlin this weekend show she’s not out of the woods yet.

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Forces outside the German political mainstream are gaining influence.

A protest organised by the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) party drew over 5,000 attendees, who marched through the capital’s government district chanting "Merkel has to go".

Such marches have become regular events throughout Germany over the past year, particularly in Dresden. But while the other protests have been organised by Pegida, the explicitly xenophobic group formed as an anti-immigrant party last year, Saturday’s protest was organised by the more respectable Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD).

It is a worrying development for Merkel and her centre-right allies.

AfD was formed as an anti-euro party during the height of the European debt crisis, in protest at Merkel’s bailouts of Greece. Although it has no MPs in the German Parliament because of the high hurdle for entry, it entered the European Parliament last year with seven MEPs. Pegida does not yet hold any political office, though it is planning to field candidates.

Just a few months ago AfD was in disarray amid bitter infighting and five of its MEPs left the party. But since the summer it has made a sudden lurch to the right, grasping on to German people’s increasing anxiety over the feasibility of Merkel’s plan to accept asylum from any Syrian refugee.

Leadership changes at the top have seen more moderate voices on immigration, who would prefer to focus on Germany leaving the eurozone, expunged.

A poll released this week by the newspaper Bild am Sonntag found support for the AfD now at 9 percent - twice as much as in September. That figure is 14 percent in eastern Germany, where the Pediga protests have been most popular.

“The AfD is the only party telling the truth – that Merkel is putting Germany in danger with her open doors policy,” says Barbara from Berlin, one of the participants in Saturday’s protest. “The media is supporting her with their lies. She should resign.”

She says that she does not support Pegida because of their “extreme views,” and in the past supported Merkel’s CDU party.

Barbara is exactly the kind of voter Merkel is worried about – people who would not identify themselves as far-right but have found common cause with the AfD over fears of a migrant influx.

Matthias, another participant, says he does not disagree with the idea of granting asylum to war refugees but says the chancellor has no realistic plan to resettle them. “The numbers are too high and the plan has not been thought-through,” he says. Germany is expecting 800,000 asylum applications this year.

Meanwhile, dissent has been brewing within Merkel’s own political family. Last week, the chancellor was barely able to manage a compromise with the CDU’s Bavarian sister party the CSU, a more Conservative party in the area of Germany that has been most affected by the migrant influx.

Merkel was only able to prevent a rift between the historic allies after reaching a delicately crafted compromise with Bavarian premier Horst Seehofer, who had presented her with an ultimatum the week before.

She agreed to speed up the deportation of rejected asylum seekers from newly-declared "safe countries" in the Balkans. She also reportedly agreed to temporary freezing of family reunification. The government did not confirmed the information

But political observers believe the compromise only buys Merkel more time before the rift with the CSU really deepens. A CSU departure would not lead to a fall of the government – Merkel has enough seats with her coalition partner the Social Democrats. But it could lead to a collapse in CDU support which would make her position as chancellor untenable.

Ralf Stegner, deputy chairman of the Social Democrats, predicted on Saturday that the AfD will gain further popularity if the governing coalition does not come up with credible solutions for the refugee issue.

Much now depends on whether a solution is found at EU level. There is a perception in Germany that Berlin is ‘going it alone’ and other countries are not shouldering their fair share of the burden on migrant resettlement. That Merkel has been unable to strongarm other EU member states into taking more refugees is leading to increasing dissatisfaction.

Interior ministers were meeting Monday (9 November) ahead of a migration summit with European and African leaders on Wednesday and Thursday. An agreement reached over the summer to relocate 160,000 refugees throughout Europe has still not started in earnest, with less than 150 refugees having been resettled so far.

If Merkel is not able to secure greater efforts by other EU member states by the end of this week, the anxiety in Germany is likely to grow.

The AfD now looks like the party most likely to benefit from the public dissatisfaction, and the number of people willing to defend Merkel’s migration policy is shrinking.

A poll released last week by ARD found that over half of Germans feel the refugees bring more disadvantages than advantages.

Worryingly for Merkel, a planned counter-demonstration organised in Berlin on Saturday attracted far fewer participants than expected.

While organisers had predicted that up to 7,000 people would participate in the pro-migrant march against the AfD, only an estimated 800 turned out.

Many of those who did attend the counter-demonstration were from the far-left, and some got into violent altercations with police.

This is not the demographic which Merkel would usually look to for support.

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