December 20, 2016
The politics of terror
The day was a reminder of the massive and ongoing insecurity Europe is facing now, and the potential this has to usurp the political agenda. The question we should be asking today is the one the German press did not discuss - the political impact. The German media even appeared to be in denial last night that this was a terrorist attack. And while we generally do not quote the AfD as a source for anything, they were factually right with the observation that if you wanted to get a sense of what happened in Berlin last night you had to tune into the US or UK media because the German media were still pretending that this may have just been an accident. This in itself is bound to fuel conspiracy theories that the media will do anything to support Angela Merkel's refugee policy. You may recall the story we had recently about the main evening news censoring an item about a young student killed by a refugee. If you want to believe in a conspiracy, the German media are not making it hard right now for the right-wingers to believe in the notion of a "Lügenpresse", an expression used by the Nazis before 1933 to denote the media that were hostile to them. There is, of course, no conspiracy, just a combination of terrible journalism and self-censorship. But this stuff can swing elections.
What happened last night was, of course, a terrorist attack. The man arrested was either from Afghanistan or Pakistan. Isis has claimed responsibility for the attack. By this morning 12 people were dead, about 50 were injured. This is not quite on the scale of what happened in Nice last summer, though it was clearly a copycat attack. The lorry used in this attack was not rented but hijacked. It is the first big terrorist attack in Germany - not only in terms of the number of people who died or were injured, but in terms of how it affects ordinary life. Christmas markets are part of German life as the July 14 celebrations are for France. The idea, peddled time and again, that these attacks do not change our way of life is nonsense because they already have.
Germany had a number of lucky escapes, as France and Belgium had been the main targets by terrorists in Europe so far. One of the questions we will need to watch out for is whether the suspect was a refugee, or someone who had lived in Germany before, and how this will shape the debate about violence committed by refugees and migrants. Official statistics show that the crime rate of refugees is lower than that of ordinary residents, but like any statistics this number has to be treated with some caution, and is in particular challenged by the right. Since police did, for example, not intervene in the attacks by North African migrants against women in Cologne last New Year's Eve, the presumption has to be that crimes committed by refugees and migrants are consistently under-recorded for political reasons.
The political impact of this - and subsequent - terror attacks on Germany could be significant. One often debated residual danger is that Turkey may flood the EU with refugees just before the Italian or German elections. We don't think this is the most likely outcome, since both Turkey and the EU are currently trying hard not to let their relationship deteriorate completely. But, even if Erdogan sticks to the deal, Merkel's refugee policy still constitutes a mortal risk to the CDU/CSU next year. A senior AfD politician called the 12 victims "Merkel's dead" last night, a taste of the debate to come. With each attack, expect the AfD to benefit politically as it will peddle the message that Merkel's policy has made the country less safe. As this debate unfolds, also expect nervousness inside the CDU/CSU, where a majority are opposed to the policies themselves, but still support Merkel tactically because she is the candidate most likely to win. Watch out if that were no longer case.
This is one of several factors why we would be cautious to call the German elections prematurely as other commentators have done. Whatever the polls may say now, this is not going to be a cakewalk for Merkel. The risks are bigger than ever before.