An Attack in the Heart of Europe

6 MINS READDec 20, 2016 | 17:52 GMT
An Attack in the Heart of Europe
The truck that smashed through a Christmas market in Berlin could have also damaged German Chancellor Angela Merkel's political standing ahead of national elections.

German authorities are still struggling to identify who is responsible for the Dec. 19 attack on a Christmas market in Berlin. Early reports suggested that the main suspect is a young Pakistani asylum seeker who was arrested after the assault in which at least 12 died. But the city's police chief has said it is unclear whether the man, who reportedly arrived in the country in December 2015, is in fact the culprit. German Chancellor Angela Merkel noted that it would be "particularly hard to bear for all of us" if officials confirm that the perpetrator of such a heinous crime had sought refuge in Germany.

And indeed it would be a great blow, especially to Merkel, who has invested significant political capital in defending her decision to open Germany's doors to asylum seekers. Either way, regardless of who is behind the attack, security, immigration and terrorism will feature prominently in the elections held across Europe in 2017, shaping the Continent's decisions for years to come.

In the runup to Germany's general elections, which will be held in September or October next year, Merkel will no doubt be criticized by her opponents on these issues as they draw connections between the arrival of asylum seekers in Germany and a string of recent attacks. (In July, for example, a Pakistani asylum seeker assaulted passengers on a German train with an ax.) The far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) has already laid the groundwork for the argument that Merkel has failed to protect German citizens: Immediately after the Berlin incident, AfD leader Frauke Petry announced that Merkel's decision to maintain open borders has damaged German national security.

The AfD's popularity has risen since Merkel chose in August 2015 to allow Syrian refugees to apply for asylum in Germany. Before the announcement, AfD's support hovered at around 4 percent; since, it has been polling between 12 and 13 percent. The party also made a strong showing in regional elections, particularly in the country's east. However, AfD's popular backing has flagged in recent months as the party has grappled with leadership squabbles and has strained to broaden its rhetoric beyond immigration. With 10 months before the next German elections, there is no guarantee that AfD will be able to capitalize on the latest attack. But should additional attacks occur before Germans head to the polls — a possibility that cannot be ruled out — the AfD may have more opportunities to expand its constituency. And no matter how well the AfD performs in the 2017 elections, its rise will influence the rest of the German political spectrum as other parties look for ways to compete with it.

The Threat From Within

The far right is not the only threat lurking at Merkel's back. Some of her own allies within the ruling Christian Democratic Party and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), have called for stricter migration rules. Though Merkel's government has already toughened its stance on immigration — for instance, by limiting refugees' access to welfare benefits and stepping up deportations of those denied asylum — the CSU has demanded the introduction of annual asylum seeker quotas. So far, Merkel has refused to meet that demand. The party would also like to tighten border controls and create special border zones where asylum seekers would be held for vetting before being permitted to enter the country. The day after the Berlin attack, CSU chief Horst Seehofer said Germany should rethink its immigration and security policies. Facing stiff competition from the AfD and dissent within her own party, Merkel is under mounting pressure to harden her policies ahead of the elections.

German parties on the left and center-left, which tend to welcome migrants, will have difficulty adapting to the shifting political environment. As the country's mainstream center-left party, the Social Democrats, has lost electoral ground over the past few years, other center-left parties such as The Greens have risen in the polls. But these parties will have a hard time convincing voters that Germany can both stay open to foreigners and be made safer.

Closing off the Continent

The effects of the Berlin attack will not be confined to Germany, either. Merkel's Cabinet has been pushing for greater defense and security cooperation in the European Union. In the wake of the recent attacks in France, Belgium and Germany, and amid growing uncertainty about NATO's future, defense and security are likely two of the few areas where some blocwide consensus can still be found. Germany's interest in pursuing Continental cooperation on these issues will likely only grow, as will its support for tightening controls along the bloc's external borders. Europe could also shut its doors along the Continent's main migration routes. Over the past year and a half, several countries lining these routes have introduced stricter border measures and erected fences in an effort to stem the flow of migrants through their territories. Though the European Commission would like EU members to progressively lift these controls, persuading them to do so will not be easy.

Part of the problem is the limited influence that the European Union has over the inner workings of the countries where migrants come from and travel through. On the Central Mediterranean route connecting northern Africa to southern Italy, for example, there is little Brussels can do to stop economic migrants from sub-Saharan Africa from traveling north through Libya. Consequently, Italy will probably continue to bear a heavy migrant burden in 2017. Though Rome will call for greater solidarity from its EU peers, its pleas will largely go unanswered. There is little countries in Northern and Eastern Europe are willing to do to help Italy, and they have systematically ignored the European Commission's plans to distribute migrants across the bloc.

The situation along the Eastern Mediterranean route linking Turkey to Greece, stable for now, could deteriorate. Ankara is adhering to the deal it reached with the European Union to stem migrant flows to the Continent. But approaching elections in key EU member states, including in France and the Netherlands, will make it difficult for the bloc to fulfill its promise to grant visa-free travel to Turkish citizens — a cornerstone of the agreement. To make matters worse, tensions are rising between Greece and its creditors, who have accused Athens of enacting policies that do not align with the requirements of its ongoing bailout program. Though Athens will probably settle that spat, a political crisis in Greece would reduce its ability — and willingness — to coordinate its migration policies with Ankara and Brussels.

The recent spate of attacks across Europe will shape other electoral campaigns. Security will be at the forefront of France's two-round presidential election, set for April and May. The most popular French parties — the conservative Republican Party and the nationalist National Front — will seek the support of an electorate that fears the connection between immigration and terrorism. Regardless of which party wins, the next government in Paris will likely criticize the Schengen Agreement, which eliminates border controls among its signatories, and will introduce tougher immigration policies. To the northeast, meanwhile, the Netherlands is preparing to hold general elections in March. There, the anti-immigration Party of Freedom is currently in the lead. Even if Europe’s nationalist and anti-immigration parties fail to enter into their respective governments, their growing popularity will force their more moderate rivals to bend their own agendas to avoid losing any more votes.

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