Always About Germany

The von der Leyen Fail

She’s married to a South Asian. But that didn’t stop her from complaining about the proliferation of African restaurants in the city.

Next stop AfD: Ursula von der Leyen.

“Berlin ist wirklich zu Multikulti,” (Berlin is really too multicultural), the white cashier said.

The location, of course, was an Indian restaurant in the immigrant-heavy, southeastern borough of the German capital, Neukölln.

Waiting for takeout, I couldn’t help but marvel at the irony of her statement. I wasn’t going to ask her partner, the restaurant’s owner, how he felt.

Obviously, there was more to this than what was being said. But politically, it captured all the contradictions of German diversity politics. Some minorities are preferable to others.

Nothing makes Europeans more anxious than migration. Even in modern, multiethnic families like this.

In EU member states like Germany, fear of being overwhelmed by African and Arab refugees has pushed the country rightwards over the last decade.

Faced with increasing immigration from Latin America, Donald Trump’s branding of Mexicans as criminals has amplified parallel anxieties in the US.

The French and Italian governments have found immigration equally convenient, passing laws punishing NGOs for rescuing refugees from drowning at sea and deporting minorities who commit crimes.

Neither ‘reform’ will do anything to stop irregular migration. Instead, they’re intended to intimidate minorities and immigrants and codify their second-class status for white voters.

This helps mollify Europeans like the chatty German cashier, who are anxious that too many people like her husband would make Europe different from what she’d originally imagined.

The British government, of course, wins the biggest prize for callousness for its Rwanda plan. Deporting Afghan and Arab refugees to an unstable Central African state, recovering from genocide, says it all.

Read between the lines. It’s not complicated.

Without a doubt, the UK chapter of this tragedy deserves enormous spite—not just for its government’s policies but because of the country’s bloody imperial history. Most Britons want to forget that.

Yet, it is Germany that deserves the most criticism.

Any society with a similar history of genocide should be so privileged. Not to mention the fact that Turkish migrant labourers played an outsized role in rebuilding its economy after the Holocaust.

Still, Germans persist in anti-immigrant and racist hysteria as though the Final Solution didn’t happen.

Nothing sums it up better than what the former co-chair of Alternative für Deutschland, Alexander Gauland, said in 2018: “Hitler and the Nazis are just a speck of birdshit in more than 1,000 years of successful German history.”

It’s a remarkable addition to the portfolio, particularly given the current centre-left government’s mistreatment of Jewish and Palestinian migrants over Berlin’s support for the war in Gaza.

The minimisation of Nazi crimes and what led up to them was laid bare. Gauland was speaking for most Germans, European citizens who wanted to move on, not just the far right and Holocaust denialists.

Distinctions between fascists and progressives in German civil society aren’t as straightforward as they’re supposed to be. But that’s always been the case.

Racism is a civil religion in Germany and infects everything. No amount of de-Nazification seems to make it go away.

For every ninetysomething concentration camp guard that gets jailed, a police or Bundeswehr unit gets investigated for far-right politics.

Enter European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen (VDL, as she is referred to in the Brussels bubble,) a one-time Merkel protégé and ex-defence minister.

Praised for criticising Viktor Orbán for using water cannons against asylum seekers during the 2015 refugee crisis, von der Leyen has levelled similar criticisms at EU member states as Commission chief.

Yet, von der Leyen’s European People’s Party (EPP) is changing. On 6 March, party head Manfred Weber proposed outsourcing the processing of asylum seekers outside the EU – in effect, deporting them.

The shift was expected. Much of VDL’s immigration reform initiative, the New Pact on Migration and Asylum, which passed in April, has been heavily criticised by NGOs and migrant rights advocates.

When it was first submitted in December, Amnesty International’s Eve Geddie commented:

This agreement will set back European asylum law for decades to come. Its likely outcome is a surge in suffering on every step of a person’s journey to seek asylum in the EU. From the way they are treated by countries outside the EU, their access to asylum and legal support at Europe’s border, to their reception within the EU, this agreement is designed to make it harder for people to access safety.

That’s it, in a nutshell. Though a mountain of criticisms has been written since then, the problem is clear. The pact is a concession to the far right that opens the door to further compromises on human rights.

That’s a significant about-face for von der Leyen. But, given the increasing gains far-right parties have made in national elections and the forthcoming EU elections in June, you can do the math.

For example, as this article was being written, El Pais published new poll results reporting that 60% of those surveyed in the EU’s 27 member states believe their country welcomes too many immigrants.

A further 85% believe that more needs to be done to combat irregular immigration.

Given numbers like these, it’s not surprising that outsourcing the detention of asylum seekers is getting traction with centre-right parties like the EPP and bringing them closer to the far right.

Hence, von der Leyen’s coming out party at Politico’s Maastricht debate last week, in which she signalled her openness to a tie-up with the extremist European Conservatives and Reformists group (ECR).

Home to two of the most important far-right parties in the European Parliament – Italy’s Fratelli d’Italia (FdI) and Poland’s Law and Justice party (PiS) – it was an unwelcome sign.

This is not exactly news to the EU press, which has chronicled von der Leyen’s growing closeness with Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni. It spoke reams about what that relation has yielded politically.

Not just an alliance with Meloni, with whom VDL cut two migrant detention deals with Egypt and Tunisia, but an overall ideological convergence, despite her declarations that it is conditional: No Russia.

This much was predictable. Yet, the EPP’s growing willingness to adopt outsourcing as a migration management policy troubles the most.

Giorgia Meloni’s signing of a migrant outsourcing deal with Albania, which would involve the deportation of refugees to Italian-run processing centres in the country, is likely the model the EPP has in mind.

Placed in an aspiring EU member state, willing to do just about anything to join the bloc, Albania can be easily manipulated to host asylum seekers the EU doesn’t want and is a matching Muslim host,  to boot.

It’s not hard to imagine asylum seekers being stranded there in definitely, trapped by a defacto cultural apartheid.

One can’t help but be reminded of the concentration camps where the British interred Boers between 1900 and 1902 and the Trump Administration’s migrant detention centres along the Mexican border.

Neither party gassed detainees, but the camps communicated cruelty nonetheless.

Albania clarifies the messaging for migrants. Try your hand at irregular migration, and you get banished to a Balkan gulag.

Like most politicians on the German right, von der Leyen is worried about getting outflanked by AfD.

As such, although she wants to develop some distance from them (by criticising their scandals) and appropriate their territory (being tough on refugees), VDL ultimately wants a Glasnost with the far right.

It would be one thing if von der Leyen indulged in some realpolitik to win a second five-year term at the European Commission.

But, when an Irish MEP accused her of being silent on genocide in Gaza in March, it stung.  This was no Frau Genocide diss from a GUE/NGL lawmaker like Clare Daley.

This claim came from fellow Irish MEP Barry Andrews, a member of Fianna Fáil, which is part of the neoliberal Renew Europe parliamentary family. That’s a big deal.

More than anything else, von der Leyen’s willingness to embrace the far right reflects German politics, specifically the desire of the right wing of the CDU/CSU to collaborate with Alternative für Deutschland.

Given AfD’s polling numbers – it’s the second most popular party in the country – it is hard to imagine anyone being able to govern without them in the future.

The problem is what this portends for diversity and human rights in the European Union. Ursula von der Leyen has made it clear where she stands.

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Photograph courtesy of The Left. Published under a Creative Commons license.