Germany’s Dutch neighbors are following its refugee debate closely and with a mixture of admiration, astonishment and confusion. Before “Cologne” we had great respect for the German “welcoming culture” and Angela Merkel’s courageous “We can do it”. One felt the painful contrast between a Germany that wanted euphorically to show off its good side and the Netherlands that reacted much more cautiously and tensely to the wave of refugees. The reason? The small, once so open-to-the-world neighbor now seems – more than we like to admit to ourselves – to feel tortured by traumas about migration and integration, to be exploited and whipped up by far right populism a la Geert Wilders.
On the other hand, Dutch politicians and media swiftly pointed out how risky Merkel’s leap in the dark and her open borders policy might prove to be. How could it be that the ultra-cautious, tentative Merkel rushed to prefer touchy-feely politics to responsible politics – not at all in the spirit of Max Weber? Throwing open German borders to potentially millions of people wandering around in a world adrift: would that really turn out well? Can it be true that Germany puts the stability and peace of its society at risk because of the constant need to overcome its past, to make good its war guilt?
As SPD leader Sigmar Gabriel said recently, Germany may be a “damn strong country.” But, when it comes to improvisation, to dealing with insecurity and disorder, not exactly (in Dutch eyes) in the Champions League. People in Germany like it when things are sorted out properly. Dutch commentators, including me, held our breath when we saw it was Germany in particular, however modern, relaxed and cosmopolitan it may have become by its own standards, that thought it could undertake such a huge political, social and cultural experiment upon its own society. This experiment stands in high-risk contrast to that “search for security” (Eckart Conze) that marks the entire post-war history of the Federal Republic.
In anxious Dutch eyes this can best be illustrated via the metaphors that federal President Joachim Gauck introduced at the start of the refugee crisis: the distinction between a Bright Germany and a Dark Germany. Putting it quite crudely: the Dutch find bright Germany too bright and dark Germany too dark.
What does this amount to? One feels admiration for the moral leadership of Chancellor Merkel and Germany’s welcoming culture; for the volunteers and all the officials who sorted out the chaotic situation with the refugees (apart from Berlin’s Lageso refugee center). But one is also deeply concerned about the long-term consequences of this mass immigration for German society. Integration problems, cultural and religious tensions, the future of the rule of law and the welfare state: Is Germany importing a new ‘precariat’? Can the western German ‘lead’-culture cope with such a huge influx of non-western Muslims? Isn’t Bright Germany dangerously naïve from an historical and sociological point of view?
That’s true too for the growing counter-reaction in Germany. The Dutch are also very worried about Dark Germany, the black, violent right-wing extremist scene of neo-Nazis and related groups. The far right in Germany is much more aggressive, willing to resort to violence and more widespread than in The Netherlands. The Netherlands has a huge problem with right-wing populism as the success in the polls of Geert Wilders underlines. We’ve seen plenty of enraged citizens demonstrating against the arrival of (too many) refugees in their village or town. But The Netherlands doesn’t know this raw neo-Nazi right-wing extremism that’s more and more visible in Germany (nor the violent far-left so-called ‘anti-fascists’): there are scarcely any attacks on refugee centers.
For understandable historical reasons, Germany “arrived in European reality” (as it puts it in its own language) much more slowly. It was also blessed with a somewhat more favorable starting point. For a long time the integration problem was far less alarming than, for instance, in The Netherlands. There we’ve long experienced the great difference between, on the one hand, Dutch people of Turkish origin who are socially and economically pretty successful and, on the other, Dutch people coming from Morocco who are struggling with big adaptation problems with regard to criminality, radicalism and terrorism. Since “Cologne” we know that Germany also (well, at least North-Rhine Westphalia) seems to have an integration problem with North Africans.
Beyond that, Germany is lucky that there are pretty slim pickings on its right-wing fringe. Guys with little or no charisma or authority like Lutz Bachmann (Pegida), Thilo Sarrazin (SPD) or Bernd Lucke (ex-AfD) can’t be compared with media personalities of the caliber of Pim Fortuyn, Marine Le Pen or Jörg Haider. In Germany, therefore, dissatisfaction and the loss of trust in the political Establishment is far from being used up. Big-tent governing political parties may be getting weaker and weaker but they haven’t really been tested and challenged. Not yet at least.
But Germany’s potential for a mass uprising of dissatisfied citizens is, one suspects, on the same scale as that of the Dutch PVV, the Swedish Democrats or Front National in France, particularly if the German economy and labor market get into trouble. Who really believes that the populist time-bomb ticking everywhere in Europe will simply pass Germany by?
Until “Cologne”, Germany was the eye in the European storm of Islamophobia, populism and social anxiety neurosis. The rather self-satisfied Germany of Angela Merkel – there was even talk of a “new Biedermeier” – was surrounded by countries in which the political establishment had come under heavy fire from anti-immigration parties or movements. Viz Austria, France, Sweden and The Netherlands. In Germany established parties and the media so far attempt to demonize Pegida and the AfD as part of the far right fringe, as “demagogues” and “intellectual arsonists.” But that won’t be so easy any more. Understandably, the huge attacks on western women in Cologne have added fuel to the fire of those who query or reject the welcoming culture and the alarming growth of the right-wing extremist scene that would gladly exploit them.
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The refugee crisis has intensified the overall European crisis tenfold. Germany now finds itself in European normality and, like its neighbors, must take on board the increasing resistance of its population against the establishment. European co-operation will be stretched ever more thinly. Europe’s anxiety neurosis has also penetrated its German hegemon. Like the Dutch, Germans will become more Eurosceptic. Not because they’re anti-European but because they don’t think today’s Europe is well run and are annoyed that many member states are undermining solidarity in the European community rather than strengthening it. And, like the Dutch, the Germans will become much more critical towards immigration. Not because they’ve got a principal thing against immigration in itself but because they rightly have big difficulties with the arrival of migrants and refugees who reject or even hate western culture – the norms, values and basic rules of the society welcoming them in. Citizens demand a better-led EU and a credible policy on refugees and integration. The political establishment does not have endless opportunities to steer this all in the right direction.
This article was first published in German in Süddeutsche Zeitung, 4 February 2016.
René Cuperus is Director for International Relations and Senior Research Fellow at the Wiardi Beckman Foundation, think tank of the Dutch Labour Party/PvdA. He is also columnist at Dutch daily de Volkskrant.