Gaza and the end of Germany’s Willkommenskultur

Gaza and the end of Germany’s Willkommenskultur
Concerns over migration were already on the rise in Germany, owing to an increase in asylum seekers, looming recession, & strained resources. But Hamas’s attack & resulting war have hardened sentiments on immigration policy, writes Michael Bröning.
5 min read
30 Oct, 2023
Concerns over immigration now cut across political lines, with 44% of Germans considering it the most important problem facing the country, writes Michael Bröning. [GETTY]

 “Too many people are coming,” German Chancellor Olaf Scholz recently declared in an interview with the weekly news magazine Der Spiegel. The chancellor’s stern gaze on the cover underscored the seriousness of his proclamation: “We must finally deport on a large scale those who have no right to stay in Germany.”

Such an equivocal message from the head of Germany’s three-party coalition government is seen as a turning point in the domestic debate about migration. But in many ways, Scholz’s strong language reflects a deeper, long-simmering shift in policy.

In June, Scholz overruled opposition within his coalition and helped push through a major migration deal to overhaul the European Union’s asylum procedures. The newly proposed rules would enable the EU to create processing centres on its external borders. Addressing the Bundestag, Scholz declared that restructuring the “completely dysfunctional” European immigration system was a “historic” achievement.

''Nearly two-thirds of voters are dissatisfied with the coalition government, while polls indicate that the xenophobic Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) has firmly established itself as Germany’s second-strongest party.''

More recently, Scholz’s government introduced draft legislation that would facilitate deportations by increasing the maximum length of pre-deportation custody and simplifying the procedure for removing convicted criminals, in addition to establishing temporary internal border controls to limit irregular migration. Scholz also distanced himself from the decision to provide financial support to NGOs carrying out search-and-rescue operations in the Mediterranean, stressing that the funds had been approved by parliament, not by his government.

Such a drastic move away from the celebrated Willkommenskultur of 2015, when Germans flocked to train stations to welcome Syrian refugees, is largely driven by high levels of migration in recent years. Germany has long been the largest recipient of asylum seekers in the EU. The number of people seeking humanitarian protection in Germany increased by 1.14 million from 2021 to 2022, one of the highest year-on-year increases since 2007, when the German Federal Statistical Office began reporting these data.

The trend has persisted this year, and, coupled with a looming recession and strained resources at the local level, it has fuelled a tectonic shift in German public opinion. Concerns over immigration now cut across political lines, with 44% of Germans considering it the most important problem facing the country.

At the same time, nearly two-thirds of voters are dissatisfied with the coalition government, while polls indicate that the xenophobic Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) has firmly established itself as Germany’s second-strongest party. This was obvious in recent state elections in Bavaria and Hesse: the government parties suffered significant losses, while both the conservative Christian Democrats and the far-right AfD gained ground.

Already under pressure from the right, Scholz now faces yet another political challenge: at the end of October, former far-left leader Sahra Wagenknecht announced the creation of a new party. Born and raised in East Germany and long a central figure of the post-communist Die Linke, Wagenknecht is known for her emphasis on working-class voters, her conservative social values, her criticism of military support for Ukraine – and her strident calls to limit migration.

In 2021, Wagenknecht, a frequent and eloquent guest on Germany’s talk shows, published an all-out literary assault on left-liberals – whom she calls the “self-righteous” – that became an instant bestseller. According to current polls, a staggering 27% of German voters would consider supporting her new party.

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Against this backdrop, Scholz’s change of language on immigration is the equivalent of a frantic search for the emergency brake. But while inaction comes with a price, so does action. For example, his tough talk is almost certain to alienate the Green Party, a coalition partner that prides itself on welcoming migrants.

Scholz also faces a growing wave of criticism from within his own party ranks. The Social Democratic Party’s youth wing has pledged to resist the tightening of immigration rules, declaring that there is “no point in mimicking the right.” Moreover, in the past, pushback from civil society, religious leaders, and progressive media has made it politically risky to pursue a more hardline stance on migration.

For the time being, however, the escalating conflict in the Middle East has shifted the ground beneath this debate. Through a complex interplay of events, the war in Gaza has led many Germans to question previously sacrosanct immigration policies. As a result, polarisation has given way to political consensus.

Hamas’s murder of more than 1,000 Israeli civilians outraged much of the German public. Yet many were shocked to learn that this sentiment was far from unanimous. A significant portion of Germany’s immigrant population, often with family connections to the Middle East and living in disadvantaged urban areas, had a radically different assessment and sympathies.

Since the October 7 attack, the Federal Association of Departments for Research and Information on Anti-Semitism has registered more than 200 anti-Semitic incidents in Germany, including an arson attack on a synagogue. And in Berlin’s Neukölln neighbourhood, an Islamic association gained notoriety for handing out sweets in the street to celebrate Hamas’s brutality.

For many Germans, the surge in anti-Semitism strikes at the heart of the country’s post-Holocaust identity: the idea of “never again.” At the same time, it serves as seemingly irrefutable evidence of the challenges of integration. German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier echoed the general sentiment when he reminded the public that everyone “who lives here must know Auschwitz and understand the responsibility that our country has.”

Thus, in a surprising – and not necessarily nuanced – way, outrage over the conduct of a few has legitimised an about-face on migration policy that could affect thousands more. It is unclear whether this consensus will hold, or whether this dramatic shift in both rhetoric and action will be enough to placate a concerned public. But, for now, it is clear that Germany’s Willkommenskultur has become an unexpected casualty of the Israel-Hamas war.

Michael Bröning is author of Vom Ende der Freiheit (Dietz, 2021) and serves on the Basic Values commission of Germany’s Social Democratic Party.

This article originally appeared on Project Syndicate.

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