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Merkel capitulates to far-right in European anti-immigrant backlash

Several European governments have now adopted legislation extremely hostile to immigrant communities

BERLIN, GERMANY - JULY 02:  German Chancellor and leader of the German Chistian Democrats (CDU) Angela Merkel leaves the Bundestag after a meeting of the CDU governing board on July 2, 2018 in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Carsten Koall/Getty Images)
BERLIN, GERMANY - JULY 02: German Chancellor and leader of the German Chistian Democrats (CDU) Angela Merkel leaves the Bundestag after a meeting of the CDU governing board on July 2, 2018 in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Carsten Koall/Getty Images)

In 2015, at the height of the migrant crisis, German Chancellor Angela Merkel opened Germany’s borders to an influx of refugees fleeing terrorism, poverty, and the horror of the Syrian civil war. “We can manage”, Merkel famously quipped, and since 2015 the country absorbed nearly one million immigrants.

That era came to a crashing halt on Tuesday, when Merkel agreed to tighten the border with Austria and build border camps for asylum seekers. The policy U-turn was sparked by German Interior Minister, Horst Seehofer, threatening to resign over Merkel’s immigration policy, and in doing so fracture her coalition government.

While the number of new migrants to Germany has dropped to a fraction of what it was three years ago, public sentiment has turned sharply against Merkel’s policy — galvanized by events like the Cologne sex attacks and the Berlin Christmas Market attack in 2016. The backlash was seen most clearly during German elections last September, when the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party won 13 percent of the votes, making it the country’s third-largest party.

But the migrant backlash isn’t just limited to Germany. Over the past few weeks, there’s been a steady drip of news indicating just how far Europe has turned to the right from its migrant-friendly policies of 2015.

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In June Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz ordered the closing of seven mosques on the grounds that they violated a law banning “political Islam” in the country. Kurz, who is virulently anti-immigration and has sought to forge alliances with Hungary’s autocratic strongman Viktor Orban, said that “Radicalization and political Islam have no place in our country.”

Meanwhile, Scandinavian countries have also introduced policies targeting migrant communities. In June, the Norwegian parliament voted 91-8 to ban women from wearing a burqa or niqab in nurseries, schools, and universities. The conservative Progress Party, which is part of Norway’s governing coalition and has called for tighter immigration policies, welcomed the vote. However, Amnesty International said it was “neither necessary nor proportionate and violates the rights to freedom of expression and religion.”

Denmark and the Netherlands have both also instituted similar bans on the burqa in the last month. Denmark, however, has gone a step further, and introduced a new set of laws that state that all children who live in 25 “ghetto” neighborhoods that are low-income and predominately Muslim must spend at least 25 hours a week learning about “Danish values”, including Christmas, Easter, and the Danish language. Yildiz Akdogan, a Turkish/Danish member of Parliament who represents one of the districts, said it was akin to Nazi separation of Jews.

“We call them ‘ghetto children, ghetto parents,’ it’s so crazy,” Akdogan told the New York Times. “It is becoming a mainstream word, which is so dangerous. People who know a little about history, our European not-so-nice period, we know what the word ‘ghetto’ is associated with.”

The problem with this anti-immigrant backlash, aside from the obvious Islamophobia, is that it puts enormous strain on the countries still absorbing migrants and refugees, limiting the ability of the rest of the European Union to help out. What’s even worse is that Trump, who’s previously falsely claimed that Germany is in the midst of a crime wave generated by immigrants, will likely use Merkel’s capitulation as evidence that the U.S. needs tougher immigration policies.

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It is unlikely that the migrant crisis will itself lead to the dissolution of the EU. However, it does show how creeping, far-right nativist sentiments have affected not only U.S. immigration policy, but Europe’s as well.