The mass assaults against women that occurred in Cologne and elsewhere on New Year’s Eve have reverberated all over Germany and indeed well beyond. The fact that most of the assailants were newly-arrived asylum seekers and other immigrants launched a tidal wave of criticism directed not only at the local authorities in Cologne, but increasingly at Angela Merkel. The right-wing groups, especially the Alternative for Germany party and Pegida, were quick to launch demonstrations—which generated counter demonstrations—and left many Germans worried about the stability of German society. In fact, the criticism did not stop there, but rose further into the ranks of Merkel’s own governing coalition.
Merkel’s “welcome” to the hundreds of thousands of refugees from war torn countries—now numbering over a million—has been labeled by her critics as a massive failure. They are accusing her of completely underestimating the impact of so many people arriving so quickly, which has overwhelmed Germany’s capacities to cope. Some of Merkel’s European neighbors are also accusing her of undermining EU regulations dealing with refugees—but then expecting Germany to help by taking care of more refugees.
It is unclear at this point whether 2016 will bring another large wave of refugees fleeing Syria, Lebanon, Afghanistan, and elsewhere to Europe. But it is hard to imagine it not happening. Indeed, this crisis is being defined as a much greater tipping point for Europe than the euro crisis.
Merkel’s refrain of “we can do this” is starting to lose its appeal, both in Germany and within the EU. Anxiety, a result of the terrorist attacks on Paris, is accelerating.
The fact that the incidents in Cologne as well as in several other cities drew so much attention in the U.S. media and among various presidential candidates was related to the hyperbolic rhetoric already in circulation following the terrorist attacks in San Bernardino and the effortless move to utilize the Cologne images for political purposes. Mistakes made in Cologne by the local police and mayor in responding to the crimes committed there was part of the focus. But turning the events into grist to power up anxiety of such dangers occurring in the United States became part of the interest as well. But it did not stop there. The German and European voices attacking the chancellor also became evidence for American critics arguing that Merkel was being naive and negligent in dealing with the challenges in Germany and throughout Europe.
There are legitimate objections to the German government’s policies and that debate is in full swing within Germany’s political climate. The chancellor is also responding to them. There are several state elections in the coming months and they will act as barometers to see how well the chancellor is faring.
Yet there is also a legitimate concern in the United States as it watches the crisis unfold in Europe. It is not that Americans necessarily have a better set of instruments to deal with immigration challenges. The dilemma of dealing with the illegal immigration problem as well as trying to prevent terrorist activity is no less tough a set of choices for Americans than it is for Germans.
But another concern in certain American circles is what the impact of this crisis will be on the coherence and capability of Germany and the EU to handle other challenges still burning on the horizon. Europe’s and Germany’s leadership in the union will continue to be instrumental this year in dealing with the challenges emerging in Moscow regarding Ukraine, Russian engagement in the Middle East, and Russia’s accelerating military build-up. Will the sanctions in the wake of the annexation of Crimea remain in place? Will Germany’s chairmanship of the OSCE be effective in dealing with Putin? How will Europe and Germany (the largest exporter in Europe to China) deal with the economic, political, and military dimensions of Beijing’s exercise of power and influence? How will negotiations over TTIP evolve in 2016 in Brussels, where Germany has such significant influence?
Those questions and more will be important to answer in the coming year. But if the newest crisis facing Europe—and Germany in particular—is going to further fragment Europe as a partner for the United States; if the centrifugal forces pulling at Europe’s coherence and commitment to shared goals are gaining ground; and frankly if Angela Merkel, who has been the most influential leader in Europe and its strongest proponent, begins to lose traction at home and in the EU, one might wonder who could take her place. Answer—no one on the horizon for now.
The current challenges ahead are a mix of tipping points. They can also be opportunities. And as the saying goes, one should never let a crisis go to waste.
Read Dr. Jackson Janes’ interview with Wirtschafts Woche on the attacks in Cologne and U.S. perceptions of the challenges facing Germany today.