Since the beginning of January there has been excitement in the European press, which can be compared, perhaps, with the response to the terrorist attacks in Paris. Every day new details are revealed of a hideous incident that took place on the night of January 1st in Germany, when organized groups of migrants, mostly young Syrians, Moroccans, Algerians and Iranians with asylum documentation, molested and robbed women in Cologne, Hamburg and other cities of Germany on New Year’s Eve. In connection with the incident in Cologne, the police received over 500 applications from victims, and in 40% of cases they have direct connection with sexual harassment. More than 100 similar complaints came from Hamburg. According to numerous witnesses, the German press quotes, in the beginning drunken groups of migrants were surrounding women, following which they were making actions of a violent nature against them. In addition, young people randomly fired fireworks into the celebrating crowds.
Now it is clear that the government has been trying to hush up the incident, trying to downplay its extent and to diminish the role played in it by migrants from the Middle East and North Africa. Probably, the government, wanting to hide what happened from the public, wished to prevent a rise of aggression against refugees in society and a new wave of criticism of the government policy in this regard. Perhaps it would have succeeded if not for one ‘but’: not only civilian witnesses have started speaking out, but also the ordinary policemen who were on duty on New Year’s night. Official police reports of numerous incidents on the New Year’s night have been leaked to the German press, from which it appears clear that the crimes were committed by numerous ‘migrant groups.’ We are talking about a few hundred violent people with whom the police of Cologne were not able to cope – the police stations were overcrowded, as a result many of the detainees had to be released. According to the reports and testimonies, migrants who were tipsy and partly under the influence of drugs pelted police with bottles, fireworks and spat at police cars. The police were unable to react adequately to the challenges arising at the scenes, simply because they did not have enough staff: not least because a significant number of police officers have currently been transferred to the south of Germany, where they are unable to control the flow of refugees from Syria, which does not stop even for a moment.
Even a quick glance at the main headlines and the most popular user comments in the media and social networks is enough to understand that the events in Cologne have produced a bombshell in society. The resonance is so strong that the government led by Angela Merkel has been forced to undertake a major review of the policy conducted today under the slogan ‘Wir schaffen das’ (‘we can handle it’). Moreover, with the ‘forced voluntary’ early retirement of Cologne police chief Wolfgang Albers, who unsuccessfully tried to hush up the events of the New Year’s night, it’s clearly not over. Chancellor Angela Merkel after two days of silence called the incident ‘a heinous criminal act’, after which a toughening of the laws against the perpetrators of offenses for foreigners should follow: their right to stay in Germany in such cases will be annulled, even in the case of a decision to impose a conditional sentence.
Ultra-right movements and parties like Pegida and AID are trying to use the New Year’s events that unfolded to reap political dividends. The Pegida demonstration in Cologne, however, turned into a fiasco. After about two thousand demonstrators of the movement began attacking security forces, the action was dispersed by water cannon. The antisocial and aggressive behavior of many far right protesters does not inspire support from the general population. Opinion polls of Deutschlandtrends, conducted after New Year’s night, show that, that despite some shock experienced by German society, there is no growing popularity of the right-wing movements compared to December, and the confidence of the general population in the ruling coalition (63%) and the law enforcement bodies ( 77%) is not shaken. On the other hand, significantly more respondents today are for the introduction of border controls with the other EU countries (57% in January to 47% in December). The vast majority of respondents (73%) consider the issue of refugees to be the most important political issue of the country.
It is clear that the German government in such circumstances is forced to develop and offer the public new recipes for migration policy. Angela Merkel cannot ignore the risk of amplification of the internal opposition, whose informal leader, the MP Wolfgang Bozbey, openly opposed to her policy on the issue of refugees, has become one of the most popular political figures among the electorate of the Christian Democrats. The tone against migrants has noticeably tightened in the corridors of power in Berlin, and this is concerning, for the Socialists as well as the Christian Democrats. Commentators point out that today’s Merkel has strongly condemned the attacks on women in Cologne and is threatening to tighten legislation on migrant offenders, this Merkel is very different from last summer’s one, who was taking selfies with refugees.
The capacity of the German law enforcement agencies is due to be strengthened: the 2016 budget allocates funds to the opening of an additional 4000 places in the federal police. But these measures are not enough, and German society is anticipating institutional solutions at the legislative level, which would systematically solve the problem of the deportation of refugees who commit crimes in Germany.
As the events in Cologne have shown, some of the migrants are grossly abusing the hospitality of the German state, which caused quite understandable resentment from many citizens. At the same time, it should be noted that the active raising of this topic in the German media, and not always well-balanced supply of materials, has fueled Islamophobic sentiments in society. For example, the well-known newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung was forced to apologize for incorrectly publishing the following quote: “Many young Muslims cannot easily react to the opposite sex, a meeting with them always provokes strong sexual motives. This was also a reason for the excesses in Cologne.’’ Many readers have noticed racist motives even in the cover of the next issue of the magazine Focus, which depicts a naked white woman with many black marks of a man’s hands. However, in this case, the editors refused to apologize for the publication.
The debate within Germany is closely watched throughout Europe. The Prime Minister of Slovakia, Robert Fico, has even demanded that an emergency summit of the European Union leaders be convened in connection with recent events in Cologne. The Slovak government considers the incident a clear confirmation of its essentially discriminatory decision not to accept Muslim refugees. Without a doubt the decision of Berlin and the possible changes in the course of its refugee policy will have a significant influence on the policies of the other EU countries in this regard.