The politics of the German refugee crisis

Editor’s note: This post was first published on 2 July 2018 on Patreon.

Marshall Auerback keeps urging me to write something on what’s going on in Germany right now because it’s making headlines. I think the big question regarding Germany is about the potential collapse of the German government and what it means for the direction of Europe. Because the situation is fluid, I don’t have a fixed idea of where this is heading. However, I do have a few comments on potential outcomes below.

Working class anger more than race or xenophobia

I want to start my comments with the working class here because the issues are similar to the ones that got Donald Trump elected and got the UK to vote for Brexit. For this reason, when people in the US use race as the main issue that led to Trump, I think they’re mistaken. I see economic insecurity as a driving factor across a swathe of western democracies as the key ingredient that manifests itself in political radicalization.

And this radicalization then feeds into the unique nationalistic neuroses of a particular society. In the US, race is the defining political neurosis because of the legacy of slavery. But that doesn’t mean it is the root cause of political disharmony.

Dutch populism as a base case

Let me use the Netherlands as an example here because of Geert Wilders, an anti-Muslim politician who took the second top vote percentage in the Dutch elections last March. Here’s what I wrote at the time that’s relevant. It’s a long quote but tells you what many working class people are living.

“The Dutch evening news program Nieuwsuur is doing an 8-part election series and the first instalment aired last night. Here’s the link to the video and description in Dutch. But let me describe what was presented. Nieuwsuur talks to a number of ordinary Dutch people they seem to have met through a food bank, a place they go because they or their families are struggling to get by years after the Dutch housing and economic crisis has ended. And what these people say is a lot like what people in the rust belt in the US were saying last year: for them the crisis isn’t over.

“The twist here, though, is that they see a lot of refugees coming to the Netherlands and getting clothing, housing and a bunch of other services from the Dutch government. And to a person they ask: why can’t we get more help from the government if the government is willing to feed, clothe and house these refugees? The result is this that I have translated from Dutch:

Arie and Harma Kempinga and their three children literally count every penny. The family from Oldambt in East Groningen has been in debt fort ten years, with no end in sight.

Arie and Harma have eighty euros a week left over, just enough groceries for half a week. To be able to eat in the other days, they go to the Food Bank. Like nine other families in Oldambt. Many of them feel abandoned by politicians. They will vote for the PVV.

Q from Niuewsuur: How is the Netherlands doing?

Arie: “Not so good. I think the world and the Netherlands are being torn apart, thanks to the government. All the rules that are coming and we have already — The Netherlands is being destroyed…”

Harma: “I totally agree. The crisis is over, they say, but not for us. And not for many Dutch people.I think it will all get worse. People with lots of money lining their pockets and those who have less, get…. even less.”


Q from Nieuwsuur: Who are you going to vote for?

Harma: “The CDA definitely won’t be getting my vote. The PvdA neither The VVD neither. I am still debating it. On the one hand I think that Geert Wilders says very good things. But sometimes he goes too far, about foreigners. We also have neighbors from Syria and they are hard workers. That does give me pause. But with some things he’s right.”

“He wants to do more for people who work, like us, and not touch the child allowance and help the elderly. I do not know if he will make it better, but maybe a tiny bit easier.”

Arie: “I will not vote, I’m fed up with politics. It will be a blank ballot. I have no confidence in politics –  for years now”

Q from Nieuwsuur: Do you feel that the government has abandoned its citizens?

Arie: “Absolutely, they can send millions to Greece or a country at war, but if I ask for a stipend for my daughter’s studies for later, they say they can’t help. There’s no money for that.”

“So there you go. You can help refugees and bail out Greece, but you can’t give us money to help with my daughter’s future education. The tie to the Greek situation is crystal clear. Greece is not getting any forgiveness because voters in the Netherlands and Germany, who go to the ballot box this year, don’t want this. It’s as simple as that.

“I don’t know how you solve this politically. What I do know is that none of this is good for growth. To me, Europe’s economic policies are delusional. It’s clear they are anti-growth. But everyone feels boxed in politically because the lack of monetary sovereignty for eurozone governments mandates that governments restrict spending to maintain fiscal sustainability. This causes electorates to turn inward and circle the wagons – as we see in the Dutch reactions.”

Germany and the refugee problem

Now take this same dynamic to Germany where the refugee population is much, much larger.

First, let’s remember that the population of the former West Germany lived for some 60 years ashamed of Germany’s Nazi past. When I was a diplomat there in the early to mid-1990s, that was still very much the sentiment. It was unheard of for Germans to wear gear with German flags on it the way Americans, Canadians and British people do. Being German was shameful.

Now in private, Germans weren’t ashamed of being German at all. They were proud of their industriousness, their discipline and economic success. They were just ashamed of the Nazi past. And so they kept their pride to themselves. And the Germans welcomed a stream of foreigners into the country in part to show how the country had changed 180 degrees. Merkel’s refugee policies hearken back to this sentiment. And this is especially true for German Chancellor Angela Merkel given Merkel’s upbringing as the daughter of a Lutheran minister.

But, taking in 1 million people in a single year is difficult. That’s what Germany did in 2015 due to the war in Syria. What’s more, Germany is a different country now. 2006 marked a shift. That’s when the Germans hosted the Men’s Football World Cup. This was the first major sporting event in the new united Germany. And Germans were suddenly openly proud, waving the German flag and showing much more open patriotic spirit than at any time since World War 2. In this new Germany, there is room to be welcoming of foreigners without having to atone for Germany’s Nazi past. And so there are limits to how much change Germans will tolerate.

The rise of right populism in Germany

Now go back to what Dutchman Arie Kempinga said last year:

Arie: “Absolutely, they can send millions to Greece or a country at war, but if I ask for a stipend for my daughter’s studies for later, they say they can’t help. There’s no money for that.”

That’s what many Germans think too. How do you deal with that politically?

What’s often unsaid here too is that the Germans have a problem with right-wing extremism. The former East Germany was never indoctrinated in the repentant German attitude that West Germans were because they weren’t integrated into the capitalist west system, dealing with their former war enemies as business and political partners.

And so, when Germany unified, there was a problem with right wing radicalism among young males right from the start. And this was especially true because of the economic devastation reunification wrought on eastern German industry and the economic fortunes of young males.

Back in 1993, I made several trips to Berlin as a tourist and also to work in the then-American consulate as the capital was in Bonn. I remember going to the remnants of the wall one day with two friends and seeing a bunch of skinheads coming toward us with combat boots, black leather jackets and a Rottweiler dog. We turned right around rather than face confrontation.

Fast forward to 2018 and it’s not just some young eastern German males that have right-wing nationalistic values. It’s also some ordinary working class people — the German equivalents of Arie and Harma Kempinga. This is particularly true in places like the industrial area of North Rhine-Westphalia, the area I know best in Germany.

But in Bavaria, already a conservative region of Germany, the immigrant flow has made the situation more stark. Bavaria is right on the southern border. So almost all of the immigrants that pass through other southern European countries to get to Germany come through Bavaria. And Horst Seehofer, the head of the ruling CSU party there, is under a lot of pressure to take a stand to stop the flow.

The political problem in Bavaria

That’s where all of this is coming from. Seehofer is not just the head of his party, but also the Interior Minister. And that puts him in a unique position to force the issue to a head politically. He is doing this for political reasons. In Bavaria, his CSU party is conservative, yes. But it isn’t getting outflanked by the new anti-immigrant Eurosceptic AfD. And if he wants to win the next election on 14 October this year, he needs to stop his voters from going to the AfD. Taking a stand on immigration will help do this — even if it torpedoes the governing coalition.

In the 2017 election, for example, the CSU only took 38.8% of the votes. That’s down from 49.3% in the previous federal election in 2013 and the 47.7% in the state election that same year. The AfD didn’t even get votes in the 2013 state election because it hadn’t formed. Now it is polling at 14% to the CSU’s 41%.

So while the AfD is taking working class votes from both the mainstream SPD and CDU/CSU main parties, it is the CSU which is the most impacted because it is the most conservative of the parties.

From a governing coalition perspective, this puts Angela Merkel in an awkward position since the CSU is supposed to be her CDU’s sister party in Bavaria, it’s only natural and perpetual ally.

The politics of the German coalition

Merkel is still the most popular politician in Germany. But her party trails behind her and she cannot form a government without the CSU given how the votes line up. In fact, she has been forced into a governing coalition with the biggest rival party, the SPD simply because she doesn’t have the votes otherwise. If the CSU were to split from her, her government would collapse and new elections would be on the table.

Now, there’s a joke about this.


Man – I’m leaving.
Woman: Ok, fine.
Man: Really, I’m leaving now.
Woman: Yes, understood. I’ll be ok, You can go.
Man: If you don’t stop, I am going to leave immediately.
Woman: Good. No problem.
Man: Okay, then I’ll stay a while, if that’s what you want.

Seehofer is and has been threatening to blow up the governing coalition for some time. But will he actually do it? Will blowing up the coalition backfire? No one knows. He certainly doesn’t. So he may just be bluffing. But still, we’re now in a unique post-War position where Germany is looking politically unstable.

There are a lot of ways this can end. I think it’s too early to tell what the outcome is likely to be and what consequences will follow. But I will post as the situation evolves.

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