Looking back on 2016, it has been a year full of ups and downs for Germany.
The German economy continued growing and is still the largest economy in Europe; and under the auspices of Angela Merkel’s strong leadership, Germany remains the most influential state in Europe.
The political landscape around Germany has however changed dramatically. Brett market a a significant shift in Europe, potentially threatening the cohesion of the union, but also making Germany the most powerful player in the negotiations.
Populism has risen around Germany, both in long-term allies like the US, and close neighbours such as Poland, Hungary, France, The Netherlands and Austria, to name only a few examples.
Whilst Germany has to battle right-wing tendencies itself, it has also become the bastion of the free world and more than ever takes an active position in defending liberal and democratic values, albeit using military force only reluctantly.
The migrant crisis, which has seen thousands of refugees migrate to Germany to escape civil war and political instability own North Africa and the Middle East, continues to be a contentious topic. It has contributed to the rise of the far-right in Germany, with the 2017 elections becoming more an more tense as the Alternative for Germany (AfD) currently scores a staggering 20% in polls.
2016 was also the year in which German citizens were hit by Islamic terrorism for the first time. The series of 2016 event reads like a crescendo of violence: in February a 15 year old girl attacked a policeman with a knife in Hannover, allegedly spurred on by an IS official; in April, two Salafi youths detonated bomb in a Sikh community centre in Essen. In July, an Afghan refugee attacked five tourists with an axe on a train near Würzburg, injuring four of them seriously. Later that month, a Syrian refugee who had pledged allegience to IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi detonated a suicide bomb outside a wine bar in the Bavarian town of Ansbach, with 15 people injured. And lastly, on the night of 19th December, a truck drove into a Christmas market in central Berlin, killing 12 and injuring 54, in an attack for which IS have claimed responsibility.
The immediate reaction after the Berlin attack was anger and disbelief. The AfD immediately held Merkel personally responsible for the attack, as Marcus Prezell, the head of the AfD in Northrhine-Westphalia, tweeted that the victims were “Merkel’s dead”. “Merkel needs to leave!”, demanded AfD’s chairwoman Franke Petry on Facebook, somewhat more diplomatically.
The central issue is that many of the aforementioned attacks were carried out by refugees who entered Germany via the Mediterranean or Balkan routes alongside many other people seeking shelter and safety from the war in Syria and other political crises in North Africa and the Middle East.
Anise Amri, the man responsible for the Berlin attack, is a Tunisian migrant who legally applied for asylum and received money and accommodation from the German government. A multitude of voices, the right’s being the loudest, now holds the government accountable for failing to recognise how dangerous Amri was. He was known to the authorities in both Italy and Germany for his criminal behaviour, yet could not be deported to Tunisia as the Tunisian government refused to issue his passport: Amri was thus able to stay on. A simple bureaucratic flaw seems to have enabled the attack to take place; which has rightly angered many citizens.
Many people are disillusioned with the lack of adequate legislation to tackle the refugee crisis effectively and ensure citizens’ security at the same time. The events of 2015’s New Year’s Eve in Cologne, where a large number of women were sexually assaulted by alleged migrants in the city centre, marks the change in German public opinion. German nationals feel that some of the refugees seem to feel ungrateful and don’t appreciate the safety and security they are being offered in Germany, instead resolving to commit crimes. Similarly, German authorities should not tolerate this behaviour.
German Minister of the Interior, Thomas de Maizere, has announced a reform of the security apparatus to prevent further terrorist attacks, yet the government is still lacking consensus on the general issue of refugees, as it is an emotionally fraught one.
The right, with the Bavarian Christian-Social Union at its forefront, demands a lower threshold for migrants allowed into Germany, and increased security measures. The left, especially Die Linke and The Greens, argues against more stringent security and augmented police presence, as they worry this could limit civil liberties. With parties torn over how to deal with the refugee crisis, there is a feeling that solutions to potential security issues are coming forth too slowly.
Yet, the general atmosphere in Germany is not one of fear, anger, or hatred. As German celebrated the new year a few weeks ago, little was felt in terms of threats to the population which could inhibit the nationwide festivities. Of course, security measures in Berlin have been stepped up: Christmas markets in major German cities were protected by large vehicles or concrete block, with increased police presence to prevent rogue vehicles from entering. There were safety bag check at the entrances to the new year’s party in Berlin by the Brandenburg gate, also protected by concrete blocks. In Cologne, a large police force was on duty to prevent a repetition of last year’s fiasco.
All this however, did not affect the Christmas and new year’s celebrations of the citizens, who were able to enjoy the holidays mostly carefree. Tourists continued to flock to Germany’s famous Christmas markets. In student capitals such as Berlin, Cologne, Dresden and Leipzig, new year’s parties seemed to be influenced very little by the events of the last year. In particular, the younger generation is not outwardly affected by the terror attacks and continues to enjoy life as before, refusing to be afraid.
A large part of the population, with the young at its forefront, continues to believe that welcoming refugees into the country is the humane and the right thing to do, despite the risks attached to it. Although not al Muslims are terrorists, many terrorists are Muslims, and the IS has openly stated that its intention is to smuggle more of its fighters into Europe via the refugee routes.
Nevertheless, the acceptance of asylum seekers into Germany reflects its basic democratic norms upon which the integrity of the state and its democratic values are built. To refuse them would question the accepted norm that human rights should be universal, not just national; especially given Germany’s own record of human rights abuses in the 20th century. It is therefore the government’s duty to ensure that its citizens remain safe while organising the integration of refugees at the same time. Statistics show that indeed a majority of the population is confident that the government will be able to guarantee security, whilst only a minority feels affected by terrorism and are avoiding large gatherings in their daily lives.
Many German citizens thus remain optimistic abut their country’s position, despite last year’s events. The delay in adopting adequate measures has fuelled anger on the right, which has additionally often instrumentalist the issue of immigration to further their nationalist cause. It is mostly the rural, elderly and uneducated part of the population that has been swayed by this rhetoric, whilst the young generation refuses to buy into it. Demonstrators pertaining to the right-wing movement Pegida continue to gather every Monday in Dresden, yet they have shrunk to a crowd of merely one hundred each week, and seem to have lost traction somewhat. Despite populist tension, at the moment liberal norms still have a higher value than fear and hatred. The young generation in particular needs to assure that this continues to happen. 2017 will not be an easy year for Germany: it must ensure the security of its citizens and rethink its position on asylum without losing touch on the values it was built upon. The outcome of this balancing act will have a significant effect on public opinion for stakeholders like Merkel, and will likely determine the outcome of the upcoming elections.