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Five years after refugee influx, Merkel ‘would do the same’

By AFP - Aug 29,2020 - Last updated at Aug 29,2020

German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks during her annual summer press conference on Friday in Berlin (AFP photo)

BERLIN — Five years after Germany controversially took in hundreds of thousands of migrants, Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Friday she would do the same again as she rides a wave of popularity for her handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

“I would make essentially the same decisions,” Merkel said at her annual summer press conference in Berlin, in response to a question about whether she regretted her 2015 policy to keep the border open to an influx of asylum seekers.

“When people are standing at the German-Austrian border or the Hungarian-Austrian border, they have to be treated like human beings,” she said.

More than 1 million people filed asylum applications in Germany in 2015-2016 during a pivotal moment in Merkel’s now 15-year tenure.

The influx deeply polarised Germany and fuelled the rise of the far-right AfD Party, weakening Merkel’s standing at home.

But as the veteran leader, 66, nears the end of her fourth term, her handling of the coronavirus pandemic has given her an unexpected popularity boost.

In a recent Infratest Dimap poll, 71 per cent of respondents said they were very satisfied or satisfied with Merkel’s work.

The AfD, on the other hand, has seen its ratings decline during the pandemic.

“It’s amazing to see how quickly things can change,” notes Hans Vorlaender, a professor of politics at the TU Dresden university. “As a rule, crises are always a make or break moment for those in charge.”

Voters have been charmed by Merkel’s “rationality, calmness and self-confidence” during the crisis, he observes.

Her understated pleas to the German public to help fight the virus were well received because they were “not a macho show of power, but filled with empathy”, he said.

 

‘Loss of control’ 

 

Back at the height of the migrant crisis in 2015, Merkel at first seemed to have public opinion on her side, taking smiling selfies with the new arrivals and coining the now legendary phrase “We can do this!”

But the debate around migration became deeply divisive, eating into public trust in Merkel and even leading to a far-right party — the anti-Islam, anti-immigration AfD — gaining a meaningful presence in parliament for the first time since the Nazi regime.

Some authorities were overwhelmed and the chancellor was blamed for the “chaotic” situation, even within her conservative ranks.

Thomas de Maiziere, then interior minister, admitted recently that there had been a “loss of control” at times.

And then there were the damaging headlines. On New Year’s Eve 2015, mass sexual assaults were committed against women in Cologne, mostly by men of North African origin.

A year later in December 2016, Anis Amri — a rejected asylum seeker from Tunisia and known radical  — hijacked a truck and ploughed it into a crowded Christmas market in central Berlin. Twelve people died.

Events like these in turn fuelled right-wing anger, leading to demands from the AfD that “Merkel must go”.

After the European Union made a controversial agreement with Turkey in 2016, the flow of migrants arriving in Germany slowed dramatically.

But Merkel was punished in 2017 federal elections when the AfD was voted into parliament as Germany’s largest opposition party.

European and regional elections in 2018 confirmed the decline in Merkel’s popularity.

At the end of 2018, she resigned as head of her party, the CDU, but said she intended to remain chancellor until the end of her fourth term in 2021.

Many doubted that she would make it that far — until the pandemic came along.

 

‘Not finished’ 

 

Five years on from the refugee crisis, Germany “has become more diverse, more colourful, younger”, according to the Pro Asyl migrants’ association.

By the latest count, around half the migrants who arrived in Germany during the crisis are now employed — a figure held up by the Institute for Employment Research as a success story.

Merkel on Friday pointed to successes in integrating refugees into the job market and German society.

“Nevertheless, the subject will continue to be of concern to us and will remain so in the years to come,” she said.

“The subject of migration... is not finished. It will be a constant theme for the 21st century.”

By Isabelle Le Page and Femke Colborne

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