EU Referendum

Immigration: German protests on the rise


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Something is stirring in Germany, enough to get the local media concerned although details have scarcely permeated this side of the Channel. 

This is the Pegida Alliance, reported on recently by Spiegel on the back of an opinion poll by TNS Research that has 65 percent of Germans feeling "left out" when it comes to immigration and refugee policy. Only 28 percent saw no problem. In addition, 34 percent of respondents are concerned about the increasing Islamisation of Germany.

The group's name is an acronym, PEGIDA, short for Patriotische Europäer gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlandes, which translates as:"Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the West".

Its rise is charted by Soeren Kern of the Gatestone Institute who records that there is a mounting public backlash over what many perceive as the government's indifference to the growing influence of Islam in German society.

Germany has received more than 180,000 asylum applications since January, a 57-percent spike from last year, mostly from war-torn Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Eritrea and Somalia but also from several Balkan countries.

The Alliance was launched by Lutz Bachmann, a 41-year-old Dresden native with no background in politics, after government officials in the eastern German state of Saxony announced that they would be opening more than a dozen new shelters to house some 2,000 refugees. 

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This proved too much for Bachmann who, like many of his compatriots, is not opposed to legitimate asylum seekers. Rather, he is against so-called economic refugees taking advantage of generous asylum laws and his country's cradle-to-grave social welfare system. According to Bachmann, most of the asylum seekers in Saxony are males who have left their families behind in war-torn Muslim countries.

The main activity to date has been a series of peaceful "evening walks" (Abendspaziergang) in the centre of Dresden, organised every Monday evening since October, with the number of protesters increasing exponentially from week to week.

The latest protest took place on 8 December after a call to action, in which placards displayed by protestors included slogans such as "United against a Holy War on German Soil". More than 10,000 people defied freezing temperatures to express their displeasure with Germany's immigration policies.

On 10 December, the Alliance published a 19-point "Position Paper" outlining what the group is "for" and "against". It accepts genuine asylum seekers from war zones, or those who are subject to political and religious persecution, but wants the Basic Law (constitution) amended, making it compulsory for immigrants to integrate".

It promotes a zero-tolerance policy for migrants who commit crimes, argues for maintaining and protecting "our Judeo-Christian Western culture" and is against the establishment of parallel societies/parallel legal systems "such as Sharia Law, Sharia Police, and Sharia Courts, etc".

Predictably, the reaction of establishment parties has been hostile. German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière has characterised the Alliance as "shameless," adding: "We have no danger of Islamization, certainly not in Saxony or Dresden with 2.2 percent immigrant population".

Justice Minister Heiko Maas calls on all political parties "to clearly distance themselves" from the protests. "We cannot be silent if a xenophobic atmosphere is being built on the backs of people who have lost everything and come to us for help", he says. "We have to be clear that the demonstrators are not the majority".

Wolfgang Bosbach, of the ruling Christian Democratic Union [CDU], warned that the protests represented the "anchoring of radical views in the heart of society".

Bachmann sees it differently. He says the protests will continue until there are changes to Germany's asylum policies. "We do not want to launch a political party or start a revolution," he says. "But we need to talk openly about the asylum issue".

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Interestingly, the AfD, cast as a Eurosceptic party with its focus primarily on the euro, has jumped on the immigration bandwagon – with predictable effect. Having gained a mere 4.7 percent of the national vote in the September 2013, its support has surged, with the party making gains in regional elections and winning nine seats in Euro-elections. It is now polling ten percent in September 2014.

As with Ukip in the UK, Germany's political establishment has worked hard to discredit the AfD, but milking the immigration issue has given party leader, Bernd Lucke, a more powerful voice in the ongoing debate.

"Many people in Germany have legitimate concerns about the spread of radical Islamic ideology, which promotes violence against non-Muslims, robs women and girls of their natural rights, and seeks to require the application of Sharia law", he says.

Lucke goes on to observe that citizens are expressing their concerns in non-violent demonstrations. This is "good and right", he says. "It is a sign that these people do not feel that their concerns are being taken seriously by politicians".

The rhetoric is thus remarkably similar to the sort of thing we hear from Farage. Bachmann even sounds like him with his motto, "We are the people!" (Wir sind das Volk!), the same slogan used by East Germans to bring down the Berlin Wall in 1989, and not unlike Ukip's "peoples' army".

But what this also confirms is that the Ukip "surge" rests on no great genius on the part of Farage, or the activities of his followers. Simply, going for the easy option of capitalising on concerns about immigration guarantees an electoral boost.

But what it has done for Ukip is create a "glass ceiling", building an irreconcilable wall of opposition that will prevent the party ever breaking out into a majority movement. AfD risks the same outcome. Ukip's coming demise will pave the way for its own failure, unless it can break into new policy domains and provide real answers.

Yet here, nemesis may be common to both parties. The German and British governments both – Merkel and Cameron - are experiencing a popular backlash over immigration. That gives both an interest in delivering an Article 48 "simplified procedure" solution, offering restrictions on freedom of movement.

The so-called "insurgents" are vulnerable to this tactic, having put all their eggs in one basket. A deal on immigration will cut the feet from under them, leaving them no place to go.

Given the multiple train wrecks, Ukip may not last that long, but the timing is academic. Stationary targets always fall, and Farage has locked his party into immobility – ironic really, when the issue is freedom of movement.