'We can do this,' Merkel said - and done it Germans have

Germany's decision to welcome a million refugees turned out to be not only compassionate - but a good investment
epa09036529 German Chancellor Angela Merkel holds a press conference after the European Council video conference, Berlin, Germany, 25 February 2021.  EPA/CHRISTIAN MARQUARDT / POOL

A fitting coda to Angela Merkel’s long period in power in Germany is the increasing confidence of the refugees who found a safe haven in her country after 2015.

More than 1 million migrants are assimilating into what is, by both population and economic heft, Europe’s biggest state. The first pioneers are even emerging on the political scene.

Making a contribution to the shape of politics is a big part of the immigrant journey. In Germany, breaking into politics has historically been very hard for immigrants.

epa09018277 A refugee family is getting ready to board a charter flight from Mytilene to Germany, at Mytilene airport, Lesbos island, Greece, 17 February 2021. A charter flight from Mytilene airport transferred 130 recognised refugees to Hannover, Germany, where they are being relocated. The majority of the refugees were Afghans, while others were from Iran and Iraq.  EPA/VANGELIS PAPANTONIS

When the first surge of migrants into Europe took place after the rise of ISIS, Ms Merkel took what was hailed as a bold stance.

"We can do this," she declared. "Wir schaffen das." At the time, it was seen as a reference to the capacity of the German economy to absorb the costs and burdens of a whole new strata of society.

It has since become clear that she foresaw a full scale embrace of the new German citizens.

This started almost immediately with dignified housing solutions and naturalisation advice. All new arrivals were provided with German language training. There was also technical training to prepare people for the demands of German employers.

Conversion rules were established to convert professional qualifications, such as those for doctors, to German standards.

The outcomes have been pretty smooth for a country that has in real time been buffeted by populism. The far right reemerged big-time. Radicalised extremists are proliferating, not just in street gangs but within some security services.

The German Parliament has been transformed, with a far-right party, Alternativ fur Deutschland, holding the position of the official opposition.

But the political march to the extremes appears to have stalled. Analysts are now seeing signs of how resilient the centre ground is, and that Germany's migrants are finding their voice.

The latest research shows the moderate “people’s parties”, especially Mrs Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, are strongly backed by new German citizens.

Polling for the Konrad Adenaeur Foundation, a think tank tied to Ms Merkel’s party, has found that support for the party from foreign-born voters has risen above 40 per cent. As recently as 2015, only 17 per cent of Turkish-born voters expressed support for the CDU. The Adenauner Foundation has found that the figure is now 53 per cent.

According to population data, there are 13 million foreign-born voters in Germany, the highest number in absolute terms outside the US.

There has been a benefit to Ms Merkel’s party in voters of all stripes, including migrants, appreciating the country’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Posters calling for "No more Morias" referring to the Moria refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos which burned down, are hung on a tree on February 18, 2021 in Berlin's Kreuzberg district.  Lesbos' squalid Moria migrant camp was ravaged by two fires in September. It has since been replaced by a hastily-erected temporary encampment in an area prone to flooding and strong winds. Aid groups have denounced the poor conditions and the lack of infrastructure on the site, while media outlets have complained that they are banned from entering.
 / AFP / David GANNON
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Germany's political march to the extremes appears to have stalled

Germany has effectively responded to the healthcare strains resulting from the spread of the virus.

It has now rolled out a vaccination campaign that Ms Merkel wants to see reach 10 million jabs a week by the summer.

Viola Neu, the researcher behind the CDU data on migrant voting patterns, told the Wall Street Journal that she sees the trend as a process of "normalisation". Migrants are acting according to their values and personal preferences and are not tied to the group.

Aspiring politicians see politics as a way of changing society but also displaying their own sense of the country’s destiny. Timur Husein, the son of self-identified "left-wing" immigrant parents, is the CDU leader in Berlin’s central district of Kreuzberg. Mr Husein came to national attention when he fought a campaign to keep the names of Prussian generals on local streets.

His political awakening came when he saw that left-wing students were burning their education certificates, something that stuck in his mind because he and his parents had struggled to get an education.

Many migrants are entrepreneurs often share the centre-right values of low taxes and progress up the social ladder while disdaining social debates or a preoccupation with identity-focused policy tests.

The involvement of politicians from a migrant background is not limited to the centre-right. The upcoming 2021 general election in Germany is the second vote since Tareq Alaows crossed in a dingy to Europe. But if he is elected for the Green Party, Mr Alaows will make history as the first Syrian refugee to have a voice in making German laws and regulation.

The 31-year-old says there are many voices and high-profile debates but no one to talk about the refugees themselves. He recalls how living in a gymnasium in 2015 with dozens of others inspired him to get involved politically.

The Green Party is a coming force in Germany. The climate agenda is just the foundation stone of its concepts of a more inclusive type of politics. The lesson from both aspiring politicians is that their outlook was tested in personal moments that proved life-changing.

It is notable also that the mainstream parties are ready to change and absorb people with formative experiences outside the German stereotype.

Politics has needed a rebirth since the tumult that swept Europe with the first mass influx of refugees in 2015. Ms Merkel is giving way to new successors, but her long-term impact may yet be seen in the cohort of those who came into politics when she was on her way out.

Damien McElroy is the London bureau chief at The National

Damien McElroy

Damien McElroy

Damien is a  foreign correspondent who has covered politics and conflict across Europe, the Middle East, the US, Africa and Asia. Before joining The National in 2017, he worked for The Sunday Times and Telegraph titles as an editor and roving reporter. He started his career in China and has a degree in finance.