Even before Monday’s attack in Berlin, the issue of migration — and its possible security risks — was already dominating German political debate.
Now, as chancellor Angela Merkel prepares for a tough election in autumn 2017, it may be that some politicians will spend spring and summer talking of little else. German media have reported that the suspected attacker came to the country as a refugee.
Responding to the attack at a press conference, Merkel urged caution. While she said “we must assume it was a terrorist attack”, she stressed that “we don’t [know] anything for certain”.
Referring to reports that the driver arrived as a refugee, Merkel focused less on those who come to Germany than on the Germans who welcome them.
“It would be very difficult for us to learn that a human being committed this deed who came to Germany to ask for refuge and asylum,” she said. “It would be terrible for all the Germans who are very active day-to-day in helping asylum seekers and refugees.”
But before she had stood up to speak, her political enemies had already been much more bold in linking the attack to the migration crisis.
Frauke Petry, the leader of the hard-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, said in a statement that the arrival of refugees in Germany since 2015 was to blame.
“We cannot be under any illusion,” she said. “The milieu in which such crimes are able to thrive has been imported here systematically over the past one and a half years.”
The AfD currently has a little over 10% support in national polls — well behind Merkel’s 35%, but high enough to be cause for concern for her party. In a series of regional elections this year, the hard-right party — which was only formed in 2013 — made big gains, in part due to its aggressive criticism of the liberal stance on asylum seekers that Merkel has taken since 2013.
Carsten Nickel, deputy director of research at Teneo Intelligence, says the party is likely to respond to this attack in a similar way.
“You already have these kinds of comments out there on Twitter from the AfD: something along the lines of ‘these are Merkel’s debts’,” he says. “This is certainly the way they are going to spin this.”
And Merkel has plenty of critics in her own party. Her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party is in a longstanding partnership with the conservative Bavarian party the Christian Social Union (CSU).
The CSU interior minister of Bavaria, Joachim Herrmann, said the attack raised questions about the sustainability of the government’s refugee policy. “We must now deal with the question of the risks we are facing with this large number of refugees,” he said.
Klaus Bouillon, interior minister of the state of Saarland and a member of the CDU, said: “We must say that we are in a state of war, although some people, who always only want to see good, do not want to see this.”
Horst Seehofer, leader of the CDU’s Bavarian sister party, said: “We owe it to the victims, to those affected, and to the whole population to rethink our immigration and security policy and to change it.”
Senior AfD member Marcus Pretzell also blamed Merkel for the attack on Twitter.
Petry said Germany was no longer safe and “radical Islamic terrorism has struck in the heart of Germany”.
The CSU has regularly called for Merkel to apply an upper limit to the number of refugees allowed to come to Germany each year, something she has strenuously resisted. The chancellor’s critics are now likely to take up that call again, says Nickel.
The mass influx of migrants and refugees to the EU has deeply divided its 28 members and fuelled the rise of populist anti-immigration movements that hope to capitalise on public concerns next year in elections in France and the Netherlands, as well as Germany.
Slovakia’s prime minister, Robert Fico, said the latest attack would change perceptions of migration.
“I think that the cup of patience is beginning to spill over and Europe’s public will rightfully expect rather stronger measures,” he said.
Nigel Farage of Britain’s UK Independence Party tweeted: “Terrible news from Berlin but no surprise. Events like these will be the Merkel legacy.”
Merkel has already made some concessions to the right. Throughout 2016, she has worked to bring down the number of migrants arriving in Germany, including by brokering the EU’s deal with Turkey aimed at limiting asylum-seeker arrivals in Europe.
And at her party conference in Essen earlier this month , she said she would introduce a ban on Muslim full-face veils wherever it was legally possible.
But she always needs to strike a balance, says Nickel, between “at times really drastic tightening of security, migration, and asylum laws” and the “rather pragmatic centrist rhetoric” that defines her politics and which ensures her broad support.
The AfD, secure in the knowledge that it is unlikely to be running the country and needing only to appeal to a very right-wing section of the electorate, can always be less constrained on issues such as immigration and security than Merkel can.
As the focus on security steps up in the wake of the attack, it may be, then, that Merkel loses more support to the hard-right insurgency.
But, says Nickel, it’s important not to write her off as a result; the AfD, he points out, lacks any viable coalition partner, so even a fairly large surge at the election would still not result in them gaining power.
“We do not want to allow ourselves to be paralysed by terror,” Merkel said in her press conference yesterday. As a cultural comment on Germany, her words are right: The people of Berlin will move past this attack, and the Christmas season continues.
But the chancellor must know that Germany’s political scene may be “paralysed by terror” for some time to come.