If Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany hasn’t made a New Year’s resolution yet, she’d better take a hard look at what happened on New Year’s Eve in the German cities of Cologne and Hamburg.
Police reports and eyewitness accounts have described a horrible series of events taking place in the heart of Cologne on the night of December 31. Hundreds of men, later described by the police as “Arab and North African” in appearance, gathered in a rowdy mob on the steps of the Cologne cathedral. The crowd then spread to the nearby city train station, blocking passage for pedestrians, and began to rob and sexually assault female bystanders.
On New Year’s Day, the Cologne police issued a press release saying they had dispersed an assembly of revelers in the city center the previous night, but they made no mention of any crimes committed. The same afternoon, a Cologne newspaper published the account of a 22-year-old woman, describing how she had been surrounded and groped in the train station. With that, the floodgates opened, and by January 5, women in Cologne had filed more than 100 criminal complaints, including two of rape. By January 6, women in Hamburg had filed more than 50 complaints of sexual assault and robbery.
The German media reaction to the disclosures has bordered on frenzy, with some justification.
Second, the police in Cologne and Hamburg seem either to have grossly mishandled the situation or simply to have lacked the resources to deal with the number of attacks.
The possibility that the police have been routinely underreporting refugee crime — as they certainly did in Cologne — is now staring Germans directly in the face.
And third, the possibility that the police have been routinely underreporting refugee crime — as they certainly did in Cologne — is now staring Germans directly in the face.
Merkel’s government has done its best to assuage the public’s concerns about the attacks. Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière, while cautioning Germans not to assume the attackers were refugees, has said that Germany should deport any asylum seekers who have committed serious crimes. Under current laws, a crime punishable by three years in prison is the threshold for deportation. But, Maizière said, “we will have to talk about whether that will have to be changed.”
The reaction of the German political Right to the attacks is another cause for distress.
The accusation that the German government and media have been lying to the public about the realities of the refugee influx is not new. Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West (PEGIDA), an organization that has itself avoided direct clashes with German laws but has inspired numerous violent demonstrations, has been beating on this drum since 2014. Justified as these views may be, the term PEGIDA uses to describe this deception — Lügenpresse — was used by Hitler during his struggle for power and has unambiguous Nazi connotations.
PEGIDA has so far avoided making statements about the New Year’s Eve attacks, although its Cologne affiliate has organized a march for January 9 under the slogan “PEGIDA Protects.”
PEGIDA is not (yet) an organized political party, and insofar as its members support any other party, it tends to be Alternativ für Deutschland (AfD). AfD missed the 5 percent threshold for representation in Germany’s parliament, the Bundestag, by only 0.3 percent in the last national elections, and it is now polling at 10 percent in the lead-up to several upcoming state elections. Whatever its constituency, AfD’s leadership shies from using Nazi terms. But it is exploiting the Cologne attacks with a clever poster campaign, taunting Merkel, for example, with the question, “Is Germany diverse and open enough now?”
All of this puts pressure on the Christian Social Union (CSU), which is the farthest right of the parties in parliament and the coalition partner that gives Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) its majority in the Bundestag. In an interview this week, the CSU general secretary also played on the theme that the media have lied about the immigrants, asking outlets “to get things right and report the truth.”
It now seems more than plausible that soft-pedaling refugee crime was de facto policy in Germany in 2015. But it is not acceptable that Merkel’s coalition partners — and a party involved in the day-to-day running of the German government — have been forced into the same rhetorical camp as PEGIDA.
What brought the Christian Social Union to this juncture is a disagreement over immigration policy with Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union. The disagreement began in 2015 and has now gotten out of hand.
The CSU is based in Bavaria, which was the endpoint of the major refugee overland route to Germany in 2015, so the CSU’s constituency had front-row seats to this year’s refugee crisis.
In August, Merkel’s government announced that it would stop applying the EU’s “Dublin Regulation” for Syrian refugees. The regulation had obliged refugees to wait out their asylum applications in the country where they had first registered entry to the EU. With the regulation waived, Syrian refugees arriving in Greece were able to proceed directly overland to Bavaria.
Merkel’s decision to disregard the regulation took strain off of both refugees and Greece. But after October, refugee arrivals shot up by more than 50 percent over August levels,and CSU chief and Bavarian head of government Horst Seehofer proposed capping refugee numbers. He also floated the idea of filing suit against the federal government to enforce the Dublin Regulation.
Seehofer has since backed down on his threat of a lawsuit. But Bavaria has pursued its own policies where it can, including vigorous deportation of refugees denied asylum. And Seehofer has continued to lobby for a limit on refugee numbers: On January 3, he announced that he wanted to see the cap set at 200,000 per year for the entire country.
The CSU’s ideas have merit. Bavaria’s deportations have been targeted at Balkan economic migrants, who seem to have jumped on the bandwagon for Germany when other refugees walked through their lands this year. More than 100,000 refugees from the former Yugoslavia petitioned for asylum in Germany in 2015. This was an insane increase from 2014 — Albanian petitions, for example, increased by more than 600 percent — especially since Germany granted asylum to fewer than 1 percent of the Balkan petitioners. Bavaria’s deportation program seems to have worked: Arrivals from the Balkans dropped to several hundred from each country by December 2015.
Seehofer seems to have carefully chosen his proposed upper limit of refugees. Although Germany registered the entry of 1.1 million asylum-seekers in 2015, it reviewed only around 475,000 asylum applications last year and granted final refugee status to fewer than 140,000 individuals. Seehofer’s cap, in theory, therefore allows Germany to commit to protecting and integrating more immigrants in coming years than it did this year. As with the Bavarian deportation policy, Seehofer’s limit would also discourage refugees not facing severe persecution.
Merkel’s approach to reducing the refugee influx has been to offer money and other incentives to Turkey to host refugees, rather than turn asylum-seekers away at the German border. This has not yet proved to be an effective strategy, but Merkel has so far refused to countenance a limit. The foreseeable objection to Seehofer’s demand is that a limit is not lawful, because the German constitution states that people fleeing political persecution are entitled to asylum, with no mention of a limit. But by ignoring the Dublin Regulation, Merkel has already shown she will play loose with the law when necessary.
At the moment, what is indisputably necessary is for Merkel’s government to track down the perpetrators of the Cologne attacks. At that point, the Bundestag may need to change the laws governing deportations — change them, not ignore or bend them — because Merkel must show the CSU’s constituency that she, too, can protect Germany.
— John Hannon is a journalist who has worked as a correspondent in China and Russia.