Will Berlin attack change Merkel’s approach toward refugees?

In order to be reelected, Angela Merkel needs to maintain the image that has been her trademark for two decades

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After France and Belgium, Germany experienced terrorist horror on Monday as Berlin was hit in its very heart, claiming the lives of random inhabitants preparing for Christmas. For Angela Merkel, who will seek a fourth term as Chancellor in September 2017, the coming weeks will be crucial. She will attempt to secure Germany’s unity around its liberal values and counter the rise of xenophobia that will undoubtedly be exploited by extreme right movements such as Pegida or the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party.

In order to be reelected, Angela Merkel absolutely needs to maintain the image that has been her trademark for two decades: the protective chancellor holding the reins of a growing economy, capable of ensuring her country's security despite terrorist threats and defend its economy in the face of the euro area crisis. Her strategy was already challenged during the night of New Year's Eve marked by the sexual assaults of 1,200 women. Monday’s events might be harder to power through in the wake of her political campaign.

Germany’s generous and welcoming policy toward refugees will be scrutinized and criticized again by an electorate prompt to forget that these populations are fleeing the very terrorists who targeted Berlin. Already in July, after the four attacks perpetrated in Bavaria and Baden-Württember, Merkel had announced a plan towards controlling the flow of refugees, fighting the radicalization of the weak-minded falling to the ISIS propaganda and increasing deportations. She will likely have to implement a new arsenal of measures to calm the growing angst of the German population

When Angela Merkel announced her bid for reelection earlier this month, Christian Democrats (CDU) militants expressed worries for her capacity to find a new breath and build momentum before the general elections in September 2017. Despite gathering 89.5 percent of the votes within her party and being cheered by an eleven minutes standing ovation, the support was not as deep and unconditional as she was used to.

Magic numbers

First, because that number never went below 90 percent since 2004 but also more importantly because the CDU Congress in Essen confirmed the skepticism of some of Merkel’s traditional allies from the Social Christians of Bavaria (CSU) as well as a handful of ministers worried of the electoral gains from nationalist formations in recent local elections.

The populist AfD party was prompt to react opportunistically to the Berlin attack, referring to the casualties of the terrorist act as the “dead of Merkel” and calling for retaliation. While this martial rhetoric contrasted with an overwhelmingly worthy and responsible behavior from the rest of the political establishment, it served as a clear warning that the xenophobic party will show no restraint in its rhetoric of hatred, much as extreme right movements had done in the 1930s rise of Nazism.

Over the last few weeks, Merkel had preemptively posed herself as the guarantor of German values, stating that “German law prevails over Shari’a” and assuring that she wanted to prohibit the use of the integral veil “where legally possible”. On this debate also, Merkel showed pragmatism and moderation as she decided not to align with the positions of the most conservatives of her party – favorable to a general ban on the veil – and instead followed the recommendations of her Minister of the Interior, Thomas de Maizière (CDU), who had announced in August a bill to prohibit the full veil in public buildings and schools.

Nevertheless, if she wants to win the election in the aftermath of this terrorist attacks, Merkel will have to clarify her positions toward refugees and remind the Germans of the reasons that motivated her decisions. By opening the country’s doors to the refugees, Angela Merkel knew that she would face societal discontentment from traditional circles in Germany.

Between pragmatism and idealism

Her decision was a mixture of pragmatism and idealism: the refugees had already taken the road to the Balkans and a humanitarian catastrophe had to be avoided. Angela Merkel also wanted Germany, for the first time in its history and after the Nazi catastrophe, to carry the universal spirit as France had done with the Declaration of Human Rights in 1789, opening the way for a final German redemption at the beginning of the 21st century.

While the question of the refugees is objectively independent from terrorist threats, the ISIS and European extreme right movements, in an eerie collusion of interest, have efficiently created an artificial correlation in the mind of most Europeans. The capacity from ISIS to infiltrate a handful of its infamous zealots has generated a critical opprobrium on the very victims of terrorism seeking shelter in Europe. Angela Merkel will lose the next elections if she stays on the defensive and plays on the extreme right agenda.

Instead Angela Merkel needs to engage and educate, reaffirming the very reason why she created history by standing up to European values while so many of her neighbors caved in. The future of Europe will depend of her capacity to prevail over the next year, despite the legitimate resentment and trauma from this terrorist attack. Either the humanistic tradition of the SPD and the CDU triumphs or Europe falls back in the segregationist views promoted by Marine Le Pen, Viktor Orban or Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the same inward looking narrowness of mind that led to the election of Donald Trump in the United States.