Monday, 19 September 2016

This one map of Berlin shows all you need to know about Europe's refugee divide

Huge gains for an anti-immigrant party in East Berlin reflect the East-West divide in Europe as a whole.

Yesterday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel waited nervously in her unassuming Berlin residence while the voters in Germany's capital city determined her fate.

The vote taking place outside her door technically had nothing to do with her. It was a local election for the Berlin Parliament (landtag), not the national one (bundestag). Berlin and two other German cities (Hamburg and Bremen) are, for historical reasons, also federal states.

But the result would have a direct effect on Merkel's chancellorship because it came hot on the heels of her centre-right CDU party's humiliating defeat in her home state of Mecklenburg-Pomerania. The CDU came in third, behind the centre-left SPD and, alarmingly, the new nationalist party Alternative for Germany (AfD).

AfD was founded only three years ago as an anti-euro party in reaction to the Greek debt crisis. Although they first had 'lazy, freeloading Greeks' in their crosshairs, the populist right-wing party has since changed its focus to migration, and today it is 'terrorist rapist Syrians' that are the victims of their hateful rhetoric.

If her party were to suffer a similar defeat to the AfD in Germany's capital, Merkel was surely done for. It was an unlikely prospect, given Berlin's traditionally leftist bent. But it was there.

Fortunately for the chancellor, the scale of the Meck-Pom disaster was not repeated. But her party lost significant ground to the upstart nationalists. AfD, which did not exist at the time of the last Berlin election five years ago, scored 14.2% of the vote. Those votes came mostly from previously CDU areas, and Merkel's party fell to 17.6%, down from 21.3% five years ago.

East Berlin lashes out

But if Merkel was breathing a sigh of relief last night, it would have been premature. Because even 25 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Berlin is in many ways still two different cities. And if the election were only held in the former East Berlin, Merkel would have lost to the AfD.

This interactive graphic from Berliner Morgenpost shows the stark difference in party performance between East and West. The blue areas are the ones that voted for the nationalist AfD. They are the 'hardcore East Berlin' areas, the ones that are very far from the center and not yet gentrified by invading hipsters. 

These are the areas that my black and brown friends do not want to enter. "They don't like people like me there," a Turkish friend once told me when I suggested we go swimming in the Muggelsee, in the East of the city.

You'll note that the purple party on the map also did well in the former East Berlin. That is Die Linke, the far-left party that is largely made up of aging unreformed Communists. The black is Angela Merkel's CDU.

Before the AfD came along, the former East Berlin usually voted for a strange mix of the far-left Die Linke and center-right CDU.

But now, many people who supported the CDU are switching to the AfD. And in exit polls, they said their main reason was their opposition to Merkel's policy of taking in Syrian refugees.

The AfD has enjoyed rapid success. They now have seats in ten of Germany's 16 state parliaments - including now in all six states of former East Germany. They have small elements of support across the country, but their greatest support is in the East.

The divide in Berlin reflects the larger East-West divide in Germany when it comes to attitudes toward refugees. But we can zoom even further out. Because it also reflects the wider East-West divide in Europe on the issues. The post-Communist states of the East are dead-set against any refugee resettlement in their lands, while Western Europe is trying to find solutions for these desperate people.

Post-Communist xenophobia

The results in the former East Berlin are similar to the result in Mecklenburg-Pomerania, another area that was part of East Germany. Merkel herself is from East Germany, and before the Syrian civil war she enjoyed great popularity there. But now, her former countrymen are punishing her for bringing refugees among their midst.

People are not only expressing their anxiety in votes. There has been frequent violence against refugees in East Germany. On Wednesday, there were violent clashes between East Germans and refugees who had been sent to a live in a shelter in the Saxon town of Bautzen, close to the Czech border.

A fear of foreigners is not limited to East Germans. It is a common attribute of post-Communist states in Eastern Europe. The East German attitudes are similar to those of many Poles, Czechs, Slovakians and Hungarians (particularly the older generations). In all of these states, the idea of taking in refugees has been hugely unpopular with the public and there has been frequent violence against refugees. 

The leaders of Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic (the 'Visegrad 4') are opposed to the EU's agreed plan to spread the refugees proportionally to all EU states. Hungary's autocratic leader Viktor Orban will hold a referendum in October on whether he should refuse to comply with the EU plan. Such a refusal to comply would be illegal, since the Visegrad 4 were outvoted and it was approved by a majority of EU states.

The hostile attitude to immigration is a hangover from the Communist era, in which ardent nationalism was encouraged (bizarrely, by Russian-controlled leaders) and ethnic minorities expelled, to create ethnically homogenous states. The older generation of Poles has had almost no contact with people of even non-Polish ethnicity, let alone non-Europeans. And so the idea of dark-skinned people from the Middle East coming in and settling amongst them can be an unnerving prospect.

During the Communist period, it was difficult for the average citizen to be granted permission to even visit a fellow Warsaw Pact country, except in brief periods when borders were open between Communist states.

For instance, ethnic Germans who were expelled from their homes in the Eastern half of Frankfurt-an-der-Oder after the borders of Poland shifted West to the river that divides the town were even unable to cross the bridge and visit their old houses, which had since been occupied by Poles who had themselves been displaced from the East. Under Stalinism, Communist states were ruthlessly segregated by ethnicity and language, resulting in the homogenous states we have today.

This was also true of East Germany, which did not experience the immigration from guest worker programs undertaken by West Germany in the 70s and 80s. As a result, the East German lands are the whitest parts of Germany today, and they are not a friendly place for non-Germans. 

You can thank Stalin for that. It is currently the Syrian refugees that are feeling the effects of Stalin's ethno-linguistic reordering. And it is this legacy that is putting Merkel's political future in doubt. Because if she cannot count on East German support, she may be in trouble.

Merkel stands strong

Of course, anxieties about the refugee plan are not only coming from East Germany. Within her center-right umbrella party it is her Bavarian counterparts that are now sharpening the knives. But Merkel is standing strong.

Today she gave a press conference acknowledging that her refugee policy is the cause of her party's slide at the polls. She insisted that Germany can successfully manage the refugee influx. But she acknowledged that everything has not gone swimmingly so far.
“If I could, I would turn back time by many, many years to better prepare myself and the whole German government for the situation that reached us unprepared in late summer 2015,” she said after meeting with CDU party leaders. “Nobody, including myself, wants a repeat of this situation.”
Still, the iron chancellor said there was no turning back now. Lessons would be learned from what has gone wrong over the past year, she said. But Germany has a duty to help these desperate people. 

Germany's next national election is in a year's time. There are three state elections in the former West Germany before then. Polling does not indicate that the party will do as well as it has in the East, but those polls could change now and next year. 

The big test, however will be the federal election that takes place between August and October next year. It is now clear that the AfD, not currently represented in the German parliament, will gain a number of seats. 

Many, but not all, of those seats will be from East German districts. The AfD has found its most fertile ground in the East but they are a national phenomenon. 

But just how successful the AfD is nationally will determine Merkel's fate. There is no obvious successor waiting in the wings, and at this point the smart money is still on Merkel remaining chancellor. But between now and the election, the CDU will be working to counteract the rising influence of the AfD.

Perhaps nowhere will this be more true than in the former East Germany.

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