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A period of democratic conflict lies ahead for Germany

Germany’s CDU are in disarray over the refugee crisis, but the SPD cannot presume to become the automatic beneficiaries

The refugee crisis poses the biggest challenge to Germany since 1990 and brings about a shakeup of the political system. On a general level, the period of inertia under Chancellor Angela Merkel since 2005, which some have dubbed ‘new Biedermeier’, seems to be finally over. A phase of politicisation, citizen participation and more democratic conflict lies ahead. At the same time, the Conservatives (CDU), the SPD´s coalition partner and its main competitor, are in dire straits. Large parts of Angela Merkel´s CDU, including many members of the party’s parliamentary group, do not approve of her handling of the crisis. Horst Seehofer, the head of the CDU’s Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), accused Merkel of ostentatiously welcoming the refugees with open arms. He is quoted having said in a telephone conference: “I am convinced that the chancellor has opted for a vision of a different Germany.” He has also threatened to lodge a complaint before the constitutional court unless refugee numbers to Germany decrease drastically. In light of this unprecedented conflict between the CDU and CSU, which had been cooperating smoothly since 1949, it comes to no surprise that the CDU/CSU dropped five percentage points in the polls since this summer.

How will the crisis affect the prospect of the Social Democrats (SPD)? Giving the developments described above, it might look like the SPD are on a roll. But, at least in the short term, there is more to lose than to gain in the refugee crisis for the SPD.

At the moment, the main profiteer from the growing refugee numbers and the current struggles of the conservatives is not the SPD, which is still carved in at around 25 per cent in the polls, but the new Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). The rightwing populists currently stand at around eight per cent in the polls. If the AfD manages to enter the Länder parliaments in Baden-Württemberg, Rheinland-Pfalz and Sachsen-Anhalt in 2016, as well as the Bundestag in 2017, a ‘grand coalition’ of conservatives and social democrats might remain the only possible alternative. This would be the ‘Austriasation’ of German politics. With a successful AfD, the chancellor´s office could be out of sight for the SPD for years to come.

Additionally, as the SPD is part of the government it is made responsible for the management of the crisis, although the chancellor´s office and the ministry for domestic affairs are run by the CDU. It is as much a problem of the SPD as for the Conservatives that most Germans feel the government is not handling the refugee situation well. According to an Allensbach poll, 57 per cent think that Germany has lost all control over how many refugees enter the country; the recent inconsistencies between Conservative leaders with regard to the family reunion of Syrian refugees will not have restored confidence. Also, 71 per cent of Germans are pessimistic about the continuing influx, with the same percentage assuming the problems are in parts homemade. More than two thirds of Germans are in favour of declaring a cap for the refugee numbers.

In order to prevent the Willkommenskultur (welcome culture) from fading, the main tasks of the CDU/CSU-SPD government are to reduce the number of refugees entering the country per day, to improve and fasten the admission process for refugees, and to lay the foundations for integrating hundreds of thousands of new migrants. The government has introduced several measures concerning admission and integration, for example extra administrative staff for the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) and more language courses. Yet, there is no easy way to reduce the refugee numbers. Many of the available levers, ie an agreement with Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to keep more refugees inside Turkey, only partly lie in the hands of the German government. Closing the national border is an option with unforeseeable consequences and can therefore only be a measure of very last resort.

This leads to the dilemma of the SPD: when it comes to rendering restrictive decisions where necessary, the SPD has more difficulties than their Conservative counterparts, because Social Democratic supporters hold contrary positions on the refugees. On the one hand, there are the social-liberal, mainly academic voters (and party members) that demand solidarity, insist on the potential of migration and simply deny that the steering of the influx of refugees is possible after all. On the other hand, the traditional working-class voters – as well as large parts of the middle class – feel threatened by the migrants. They worry about their jobs, about the housing market and the future of the welfare state in a more diverse society. So far, party leader Sigmar Gabriel has managed to position the SPD well as a pragmatic voice of reason and to keep the balance between the two attitudes. He distanced himself from Merkel´s open arms approach, at the same time rejecting inhumane and impracticable measures such as the idea of prison-like camps at the border to send back refugee without a chance back right away (the so-called “transit zones”). But if public opinion turns more sceptical towards the refugees, it will be easy for the conservatives to put the SPD on the defensive with new restrictive proposals.

The dilemma is that it is within the self-interest of the SPD to get the chaotic situation under control; only then will it have the political space to push forward a new Social Democratic reform agenda. Education, labour market, housing, integration – all of these are core social democratic policy areas which now need to be newly thought through. At best, the refugees are the starting point for a new era of bold social democratic reforms, breaking up decrepit structures and thus benefiting migrants and natives alike. These reforms will cost money. But even finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble now admits that tremendous expenses are heading Germany´s way. The fetish of a balanced budget – the ‘black zero’ – might therefore belong to the past.

For many European social democrats, this will sound like good news. But as much as Germany needs to abandon old certainties in this fundamental crisis, the other European countries have to change their approach, too. Germany, Sweden and Austria cannot alone cope with the refugees. In order for the EU to live up to its own principles, the burden must be shared more fairly.

This article was published first by our partner think tank Policy Network.