What Merkel actually said

October 25th, 2010
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Much has been made of German chancellor Angela Merkel’s remarks about multi-culturalism having failed in Germany and her call for immigrants to integrate better into German society. Sadly, many analysts have followed the predictable rhetorical slide German-xenophobe-neo-Nazi. So it was that Merkel’s remarks were frequently paired with a recent survey from the Friedrich Ebert Foundation showing German’s apparently increasing intolerance against outsiders.

Two things come immediately to mind. First, perhaps we should focus on what Merkel actually said. To be fair, many news reports in English (and German) skipped over her actual remarks and dove right into the “controversy”, making it difficult for some commentators to accurately report the facts. Full credit to John Moore for trying to do this, before launching blindly into a down-the-line defence of multiculturalism. Here are part of her remarks (my translation):

“… and we are a country that, in the early 1960′s, invited the guestworkers (in). (And) now they live with us and, for a while we were lying to ourselves, saying ‘they really won’t stay, at some point they’ll go home’ – that isn’t reality. And naturally, the assumption that ‘now we’ll try multiculturalism and kind of live together yet apart’, somehow enjoying each other – that has failed, absolutely failed … Islam is a part of Germany, one sees that not only in the soccer player Oezil. And now my friends, it hinges on this, how will we deal with this question? The theme of integration is a central theme because, amongst our young people, the number with immigrant backgrounds will increase, not decrease”.

It’s interesting that, even in the internet age only edited versions of her speech are readily available. Her further comments in the same speech, that Germany must be seen as welcoming immigrants and that such an attitude is crucial to her economic success are difficult to find unedited.

Second, the Friedrich Ebert Foundation is an arm of the German Social Democratic Party, so not exactly a disinterested observer. On the contrary, it is in their interest to portray as big a Right-radical threat as possible. The implication that their survey raises, that increased anti-Semitism reflects a threat from the Right, is belied by the fact that there is as much, if not more, anti-Semitism on the Left as on the Right.

It’s unfortunate that commentators like Peter Goodspeed in the National Post, who cites the foundation’s survey to warn of rising neo-Nazism, conflates Merkel’s remarks with the issue of European Roma and anti-Semitism. Arguments like Goodspeed’s stifle open discussion of legitimate questions like immigration and integration and, for that matter, what happens when the traditional Roma lifestyle collides with the modern welfare state. It is also misleading to link “paleo-anti-Semitism” with modern European anti-Semitism that, again, is driven as much or more by the Left than the Right, draped with anti-Zionist, anti-Israel trappings.

Ironically, contrary to Goodspeed, some argue Merkel has moved her party substantially to the Left. This has created a vacuum on the Right, leaving no legitimate political vehicle through which to debate, let alone advance or resolve questions relating to migration and integration.

Merkel does not sugar-coat the guest-worker experiment. By “Muli-kulti” she means the separation of Germans and immigrants both during and after the guest worker period (1960 – 2000). This, I suppose, exposes her to the criticism that Germany never actually tried multi-culturalism. But the answer to that, or why multi-culturalism wouldn’t work now, may be found elsewhere in Merkel’s remarks. She quotes statistics that two out of three elementary school children in cities like Frankfurt/Main are children of immigrants. With these sorts of numbers, questioning the merits ethnic separation is not pandering to xenophobes, it’s coming to grips with a real social dilemma.

It’s too easy to play the xenophobia/neo-Nazi card to shut off debate on the merits of multi-culturalism. If discussion of integration is taboo, then debating rates of immigrant unemployment and other important issues will also clearly be out of bounds. In this regard, Merkel’s comments are helpful. These topics should be the subject of healthy debate.

Finally, Merkel is reminding Germans that immigrants are an economic necessity, but also insists that de facto parallel societies in one state has failed and will fail. If not integration, then what?

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By John Weissenberger
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