Can Europe Make It?

After Germany’s Super Sunday

Recent elections in three German states were widely considered a referendum on chancellor Merkel’s immigration policies, much to the benefit of her own supporters and her nationalist critics. Any place for solidarity with refugees?

Moritz Neugebauer
21 March 2016
Frauke Petry, leader of Alternative for Germany, on 12 February 2016'.

Frauke Petry, leader of Alternative for Germany, on 12 February 2016'. Flickr/ Some rights reserved.

There have been two very different immigration debates under way in Germany of late, and the highly ambiguous results of the parliamentary elections held in three German states on 13 March have brought both to the surface more clearly than before.

The state elections as a referendum on immigration

The first debate now revolves around the remarkable gains made by the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) on the one hand – founded only three years ago, the party has been launching scathing attacks on the alleged ‘open-door policy’ of Angela Merkel’s conservative-led government – and the success, on the other, of each state’s incumbent governor in maintaining their parties’ simple majorities, two of whom are close allies of Merkel on the issue of immigration.

The Daily Mail’s wishful-thinking headline ‘Crushing verdict on open-door migration’ was not an exceptional take on the results. Those within and outside the chancellor’s party who have favoured a stronger commitment to formally ‘capping’ the number of asylum seekers allowed to cross the border similarly led German media outlets to exclaim: ‘Triumph of Merkel’s critics!’ One of the most outspoken amongst them, the leader of the AfD attracted international attention in January when she referred to the use of firearms at the border as a last resort against refugees.

Conversely,  the election results can just as easily be interpreted as a ‘victory for Merkel’s centre-left avatars’. Two incumbent governors in particular, despite being members of the Greens and the Social Democrats, have been actively defending Angela Merkel from critics within her own conservative party. This seems to have gone down well with voters – the democratic ideal of a cross-party alliance, one might think.

‘When things are reduced to two poles, we’ve already lost’

However, this debate feeds on irreconcilable oppositions – such as the one between ‘Merkel’s policies won’ and ‘Merkel’s policies lost’. Bloggers, campaigners and some journalists are drawing increasing attention to the dangers of such polarisation. A local activist decried ‘the intolerable image of the two poles’ on Facebook: ‘Protesters and counter-protesters, concerned citizens and starry-eyed idealists, racists and democrats … Whenever things are reduced to two poles, we’ve already lost. And they are being reduced in that way.’ Along the same lines, a prominent blogger and journalist observes the pugnacious ‘eitherorism’ – whereby every point of criticism is perceived as the utmost disagreement – that often comes to burden political discussions, especially on social media.

What is more, the spiral of escalation between the chancellor’s supporters and the far right is skewed, which is where the second immigration debate comes in. In recent months the leading figures of the AfD received a degree of Trump-style media attention that was grotesquely disproportionate to their national polling at around 10 per cent, while anyone seeking to defend Merkel’s immigration policies suffered from a structural disadvantage. Her policies may still appear humanitarian to some (even after the EU-Turkey deal) but they are undoubtedly vulnerable to the charge that they fail to address urgent socio-economic problems and neglect democratic participation. In this light, the mantra ‘we will manage’ takes on a rather cynical meaning.

The other scene of the immigration debate

Indeed, both the racist underpinnings of the AfD and the German government’s continuing embrace of technocratic neoliberal paradigms are being challenged every day, since both are a threat to the daily lives of refugees and other migrants in Germany. Whenever feminist groups take to the streets in protest against the xenophobic appropriation of the struggle against patriarchy and sexism; whenever members of the Left Party insist, despite the party’s losses in all three Super Sunday states and an ongoing internal push for a more nationalist orientation, on solidarity with refugees and a holistic, democratic left alternative to austerity; whenever resistance against the government’s neglect for housing, levels of income and social mediation surfaces amongst the Greens, the Social Democrats or even Merkel’s own party – then we see this second debate flare up.

But it is difficult to pursue humane alternatives to the ‘humanitarianism’ of Merkel’s government. The past six months were marked by tremendous political efforts to ‘seize the opposition’s ground’. In a rather ingenious move, the chancellor’s decreeing of less restrictive asylum rules for Syrians in August 2015 dispersed not only widespread concerns about the government’s approach to the Greek Syriza, but also substantial accusations that the state had for years been turning a blind eye to right-wing political violence – and crucially, it imposed an artificial choice between either supporting Merkel or being against refugees.

Faced with this choice, many sided with the chancellor and continue to do so. But it was an irresponsible gamble on the chancellor’s part. By silencing most of the progressive, anti-austerity opposition, she off-handedly caused a shift in the discourse and strengthened the nationalist charge that the government was ignoring social issues and was instead ‘putting refugees first’ – Merkel and her close political allies were in no position to meaningfully counter this charge, while any criticism from the left risked weakening the proclaimed pro-immigration stance. For nationalists, pitting the socially disadvantaged against newly arriving refugees has since been child’s play after fifteen years of neoliberal reforms that have hit those the hardest who are unemployed, homeless, pensioners or on a low income.

Even a close relative of mine voted AfD. Talking to him is not easy these days given the rampant distortion of information that has taken hold, online and offline. Even if numbers such as ‘Germany received more than a million refugees in 2015 alone’ turn out to be vast exaggerations, they take on a life of their own once they are being repeated over and over again within the rigidly bipolar frame of the debate. Both sides have largely been busy to prove a point – so busy that their point-scoring is clouding the complex bigger picture.

This article appeared in an earlier version on the Migrant Rights Network blog and is reproduced with their kind permission.

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