Impact of Merkel's 'great gamble' on refugees goes beyond the ballot box

Win or lose, the consequences of the chancellor's decision to open Germany during the refugee crisis, including a motivated far right, will be felt long after Sunday's election, Margaret Evans writes.

Motivated far right is one of the consequences of chancellor's open-door policy during refugee crisis

An election campaign poster in Frankfurt shows Angela Merkel, top candidate of the Christian Democratic Party (CDU), stickered with badges reading 'Merkel must go.' (Ralph Orlowski/Reuters)

When Germans go to the polls in parliamentary elections this Sunday, their chancellor, Angela Merkel, will finally know whether what's been called her "great gamble" was worth it.        

Two years ago, when she decided to open Germany's door to almost one million refugees, her critics said it would be the death knell of her political career.

Not so, according to opinion polls.

Josef Janning, a Berlin-based analyst with the European Council on Foreign Relations, says Merkel is still basking in a certain "feel-good factor" in Germany. 

"We didn't used to think about this country as being great," he says. "Not in the sense of being 'uber alles' [above everything else] as the first verse of the traditional German national anthem goes … but in the sense of being a good place to live."

A campaign poster shows Angela Merkel and the colours of the German flag with the message: 'For a Germany where we live well and where we like to live.' (Getty Images)

It's the message Merkel's campaign posters deliver, wrapped in the sometimes undulating, sometimes geometric colours of the German flag, with the slogan: "Where we live well and where we like to live."

A bit clumsy in translation perhaps, but Merkel's success will depend on her ability to assure Germans it's going to stay that way.

Because her great gamble has not been without consequences.

'Merkel must go!'

For starters, the arrival of hundreds of thousands of refugees offered far-right groups floundering in the political wilderness a new sense of purpose. 

In the city of Dresden most Monday evenings, crowds of about 700 people gather for what they bill as an "evening stroll," which starts from a new location each week.

At last Monday's march, it quickly became clear the media aren't well-liked. Calls of "Lugenpresse!" followed us through the crowds, an old Nazi slur that means "lying press."

But the real ire was reserved for refugees. The march is organized by Pegida: Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West.

"Angela Merkel brought to Europe abuse, rape and murder," a man with the microphone says to roaring chants of "Merkel must go!" 

"The Germans are voting for their own hangman."  

Most in the crowd were elderly pensioners who accuse Merkel of preferring to spend money on refugees and their language programs than on her own people.

But there were also a few young faces, including a 28-year-old named Tim. He wouldn't give his last name but said he belongs to the Identitarian movement, a new nationalistic youth group currently being monitored by German intelligence.

Tall and strapping, he fits the Identitarian image of hipster alt-right youth. 

"Here in Dresden, people are showing very openly their flags and in no other German city are they doing this," he says. "To make sure that people don't forget that there is a German people and who they are and the resistance they show."

Strength of far-right party

Many in the crowd, including Tim, say they'll be voting for the Alternative for Germany party, AfD. It began with an anti-European Union platform, but shifted to include stridently xenophobic positions during the refugee crisis. 

The refugee crisis has been fuel for anti-Islam groups like Pegida. Supporters seen here gather on a Monday evening in the eastern German city of Dresden. (Lily Martin/CBC)

Its support was much higher last year, but it's still polling at around 11 per cent. That's enough for it to win a place in parliament. If it does, it will be the first time a far-right party has entered the Bundestag since the 1950s. 

And given the nature of coalition politics in Germany, it could even become the main opposition party.

Barbara John, a commissioner for integration and immigration in Berlin in the 1980s, believes the AfD might perform better than its polling suggests. 

"The heavy influx of 1.45 million asylum seekers in the last three years was too much for many people," she says.

'It's not the prime issue whether Merkel was right in 2015. The prime issue is how do we deal with the people that are here now.' - Josef Janning, analyst with the European Council on Foreign Relations

The fact the number of refugees dropped by 69 per cent between 2015 and 2016 has undoubtedly made things easier for Merkel. So, too, has low unemployment and strong growth.

This is the key for mainstream voters, according to analyst Josef Janning. 

"It's not the prime issue whether Merkel was right in 2015," he says. "The prime issue is how do we deal with the people that are here now." 

In other words, how to successfully integrate such a large number of people.

'Harmony needs two players'

At the prestigious German Historical Museum in Berlin, they've begun offering free tours in Arabic twice a week for newly arrived refugees.

It's a way to help people connect with their new home. But it's also an acknowledgement that Germany's ethnic makeup has changed, says spokesperson Boris Nitzsche. 

"From the 50 per cent of resident Germans [who visit the museum], 20 per cent of them probably have a migration background. So we have to deal with the idea that we are telling and explaining German history not anymore just to Germans."

Syrian refugee Salma Jreige, left, leads an Arabic tour specifically designed for newly arrived refugees at the German Historical Museum in Berlin. (Lily Martin/CBC)

Tour guide Salma Jreige is herself a Syrian refugee, although she prefers the word newcomer. She says integration must go both ways.

"This harmony needs two players. I mean we need to learn the German rules, the German language, etc. And at the same time, we need to have acceptance from the other side." 

That can sometimes be hard to come by in Germany, no matter the end of the political spectrum, says Barbara John. 

"There is this, yeah, I would say this attitude still in Germany that the best foreigner is someone who doesn't look like a foreigner," the former immigration commissioner says.

A Berliner. Not a German

Just ask the country's large Turkish population. Many Turks came to Germany as guest workers in the 1950s, '60s and '70s and stayed on, changing the face of Berlin neighbourhoods like Kreuzberg. 

Ibo Omari, owner of a well-known graffiti art shop, was born to Turkish and Lebanese parents and has spent his whole life in Berlin. He calls himself a Berliner. Not a German. 

"The difference is I don't associate myself with or identify myself with a nation that didn't identify with me," he says. 

"Even inside Berlin, if you go far to the east part there are places where the cashier will talk very slowly, pronouncing things. Because they're not used to someone foreign looking speaking fluent German."

Ibo Omari, owner of a well-known graffiti art shop, was born to Turkish and Lebanese parents and has spent his whole life in Berlin. He calls himself a Berliner. Not a German. (Lily Martin/CBC)

Omari says most Germans still don't see their country as one of immigration. And Barbara John agrees.

"In Berlin, 25 per cent of our population have a migration background. These are not bewildering numbers. But they are numbers we have to come to terms with and we must change basic attitudes, which takes time really."  

Until then, those attitudes are likely to disappoint the expectations of those coming in.

High hopes

A year ago this month, Syrian refugee Wassim Omar was stuck in a refugee camp on a Greek island, dreaming of the day he'd get his wife and three children to Germany. 

Today, he's settled in a small village near Mannheim awaiting the outcome of his asylum claim. His two older children, ages seven and eight, have just started school.

Syrian refugee Wassim Omar, pictured here with his youngest son, Ali, is waiting for a ruling on his asylum claim. (Lily Martin/CBC)

He doesn't yet know the language and is shy to try to talk with strangers. But he hopes to find a job and one day be accepted as a German.

"The people, they have the power and the courage to destroy the wall. Berlin Wall. And to be just one Germany. They start from zero to build their country and they did it and now Germany is one of the greatest countries in the world."

And one that offered him refuge. Another important consequence of Merkel's great gamble.


Margaret Evans

Europe correspondent

Margaret Evans is a correspondent based in the CBC News London bureau. A veteran conflict reporter, Evans has covered civil wars and strife in Angola, Chad and Sudan, as well as the myriad battlefields of the Middle East.