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Twenty-First Century Crusades?

Prediction 1: Continued tension and backlash against Muslims in Europe

Merkel jumps on xenophobe bandwagon
Leo Kretzenbacher

IF A statement is completely wrong and illogical, Germans call it "so wrong that not even its opposite is correct". Seldom has this characterisation been more fitting than for German Chancellor Angela Merkel's recent announcement that multiculturalism in Germany had failed.

For it to have succeeded or failed it would have had to have been tried in some serious way first. German governments have never been guilty of any serious effort to create a multicultural society. It has not happened since before German unification in 1990, when both German states had a huge need for workers beyond their own workforce; neither in the GDR - which hid from its German population the massive numbers of "contract workers" from countries such as Mozambique and Vietnam by housing them in barracks - nor in West Germany, where ''guest workers" have been needed since the 1950s to keep the economy booming. Unspoken in the GDR but repeated ad nauseam in the Federal Republic before and after German unification until the late 1990s, it was the mantra of successive German governments that Germany was not a country of immigration. Which is exactly what it has been for six decades now, meaning that by the late 1990s at least two generations of migrant children - born in Germany but unable to claim German citizenship because their parents were not German nationals - had grown up feeling completely disenfranchised and unappreciated by the country of their birth and where, in many cases, they had spent all their lives.

When, in 1999, the citizenship law was finally reformed to make it easier for children of non-Germans born in Germany to become citizens, it was too little, too late. Parallel societies of migrants had developed in Germany in the previous 40 years as a reaction to a lack of integration opportunities; and these parallel societies - the most visible of which is the Turkish one - in turn bred a defiant unwillingness in many of their members to integrate into a German society that so obviously did not welcome migrants, let alone understand what they had to contribute. So this is how wrong Merkel's statement is. If anything, it is not multiculturalism that has failed in Germany, but Germany that has failed multiculturalism.

So Merkel's statement is very wrong and very stupid. But what is worse, it is very cynical and dangerous. Clearly, Merkel and Horst Seehofer, the chairman of the sister party CSU, who made similar comments, did not mean their wrong and stupid statements to be any serious contribution to a mature debate about multiculturalism and integration of migrants in Germany. It is the transparent hollowness of their brazen unison defamation of multiculturalism that shows how desperate both leaders are for new headlines - any new headlines - other than the ones that have been dominating German news for the past months: headlines about the abysmal performance of their centre-right coalition government and the consequently abysmal performance ratings it has been receiving from the German population. Not being able to make the ugly headlines disappear, Merkel and Seehofer try to make new headlines by jumping on the xenophobic bandwagon of right-wing populism.

The attempt to sell xenophobia as the new black tries to capitalise on recent surveys showing that a sizeable number of Germans subscribe to xenophobic and anti-democratic attitudes. The centre-right parties have most to lose from this development, so they try to own and manage it.

But Merkel, as the leader of the major party in the government coalition, is playing with fire. The German centre-right parties have been incredibly lucky so far that no charismatic leader has emerged at the populist right fringe of politics as has happened in many European countries, not least Austria and Switzerland. And Merkel, by giving xenophobic talk an arena , could well trigger such a development rather than prevent it.

Australia is not Europe, but enough European political developments have found their echoes in Australia to alert us to watch with tense interest sorcerer's apprentices such as Merkel conjuring populist demons. When John Howard was the leader of a strong coalition government, he was able to out-Hanson Pauline Hanson and thereby make her obsolete, by integrating central parts of her xenophobic agenda into government policy - not the least of which was the policy of reducing multiculturalism from an active policy to lip service. This year a weakened ALP and equally weakened Liberal Party tried to dramatically overstate the effect that refugees on boats have on Australia to gain the xenophobe vote in the last election - neither with massive success, as we know now.

Whether Julia Gillard or Tony Abbott will be able to close their Australian Pandora's box of xenophobia, any better than Angela Merkel will be able to close the one she just opened in Germany, remains to be seen. As far as international competitions go, this is not one I enjoy watching.

Leo Kretzenbacher is convener of the German studies program at the University of Melbourne.

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