The Sept. 20 Financial Times headline reads: Merkel forced to change tack over refugees after Berlin election blow, underneath a photo of Afghan-born Chelsea bomber Ahmad Khan Rahami’s defiant hate stare from a gurney, and U.S. president Barack Obama’s feeble warning to Americans “not to succumb” to fears of terrorism.
The (Sunday) Sept. 18 Berlin electoral defeat for Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel and her Christian Democratic Union party repeats several earlier election setbacks this year. The anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany Party obtained about 14 percent of the ordinarily leftist Berlin vote, shocking the German political establishment. Merkel’s coalition and base are deserting her, especially in Bavaria and the south.
The loss, she acknowledged for the first time, was on account of mass arrival of refugees. Merkel then backed away from her wir schaffen das — “we can do it” — theme, calling it an “empty slogan.” She still has broad-based domestic support, but it is waning month by month.
“If I could, I would rewind time by many, many years so that I could better prepare myself and the whole government and all those in positions of responsibility for the situation that caught us unprepared,” she said. Unprepared? It was Merkel — backed by the European Union — that opened the door to the flood.
“The government has been on the right track with its policies for some time now. But our communications must be better.” Better communications? “We have learnt from history. Nobody, including me, wants a repeat of this situation,” she went on. Maybe, but what are those lessons of history? Already, thanks to Merkel’s errors, Europe has some very tough customers on its hands, few of them interested in assimilating into European society.
Merkel does not deserve much mercy. We were just unprepared! Oh my. A year after destabilizing Europe in remarkable, even suicidal ways, her actions remain a puzzle. According to the Financial Times, the chancellor still defends her decisions as “absolutely right,” adding that, “ultimately, it led to a time when we did not have enough control over the situation.” Nonsense.
Recall what Merkel triggered. A year ago this month, Munich and Vienna were in chaos. So were Budapest and several southeast borders. An estimated 1.1 million Mideast and African migrants poured into Europe during 2015, most undocumented and illegally, through Turkey and Greece. Last September, more than 10,000 were arriving in Munich each day.
Desperate refugees needed humanitarian aid, exclaimed the Economist and the New York Times. But many noticed the refugees often looked comfortable and well-fed. A smuggling trade was flourishing in the Aegean Sea.
Amid a sprinkle of sad-eyed women and babies wearing orange life vests, and little Alan washed up on shore, a sea of confident, vigorous males seemed to be invading the continent. Many were avoiding conscription. Their movements often seemed confrontational and aggressive, and they were. While the migration was opportunistic, hegira — Muslim pilgrimage into new lands to carry the faith — was a supporting feature, but off-limits to progressive thought.
So the world watched dinghies discharge aliens on the make, home free in Lesbos. Europe was for the most part unable to defend itself, even psychologically. Turkey extracted favorable concessions to staunch the flow into Greece from Turkey’s Syrian camps; the Balkans remain a purgatory for migrants. Turkey’s president Recip Erdogan knows he holds powerful chips in keeping Mideast refugees out of Europe.
Having initially welcomed an influx from the Mideast last year, and still facing waves of African boat people, Europe’s nationalism is resurgent. Improbable assumptions about quick assimilation have not been fulfilled. How could they be? Merkel’s position, from the weekly Die Welt: “There is no question that the influx of so many people will still demand a lot from us,” but “our values, our traditions, our understanding of the law, our language, our rules, this is for anyone who wants to live here.”
Merkel and her allies expected immigrants to embrace German standards of order and hygiene, learn the language, and stop for red lights. When many newcomers displayed little concept of EU-style law, the rights of women, or property maintenance, public opinion changed rapidly. Violations of authority and coarse behavior were frowned upon.
Europe’s governing classes take secularism, multiculturalism, and universalism to be self-evidently virtuous. Official exclamations of immigrant economic value added disguise the attraction of cheap service labor for urban employers, filling jobs that many young Europeans shun.
Merkel has adhered stubbornly to open-door policies for migrants, rejecting any limit on the number of refugees allowed into Germany. Elections and populist victories across the continent point in another direction. The Brexit referendum has been a big shock for Europe’s ruling classes that a generation ago declared borders and nationalism passé.
This year, some 300,000 illegal arrivals so far — including many African boat people coming into Italy — is not a trifling number. No one of power in Europe wants to talk Africa’s simmering population pressures. Working-class Egyptians or Persians in Rome, Muslims that they are, are far more adaptive to the Italian culture and economy than the growing numbers of sub-Saharan itinerants loitering in piazze and railroad stations.
Watch Austria next. On October 2, after a close, contested election, if it not delayed for technical reasons, the Green Party’s Alexander Van der Bellen faces a rematch with pro-Catholic nationalist Norbert Hofer. Elections in the tiny nation of eight million people with the big history will provide a leading indicator of changing European opinion.
It is possible that Hofer will prove the victor. His Freedom Party is accused of having neo-Nazi and anti-Semitic sympathies, something the party denies. Hofer said he would like the Visegrad group — currently comprising the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia — to include Austria. The Visegrad countries have forcefully resisted the huge influx of refugees and migrants to Europe.
Leading media including the Financial Times call Europe’s anti-immigrant nationalism extreme, xenophobic, right wing, and far-right. These are misnomers, meant to alarm and shame. In contrast to internationalists and rentiers living in the center of capital cities, many middle-to-working-class Europeans reject post-sovereign globalism. They do not benefit from transnational finance or cheap imported labor. They are patriots, not one-worlders. In some respects, they resemble the Trump insurgency in the U.S.
Sovereignty and nationhood remain attractive to Europe’s Hauptstraße voters. The spirit of self-determination that stirred world leaders throughout the 20th century is alive and rising on account of the EU’s overreach and Merkel’s follies.
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