Germany's learning curve on immigration

Perhaps the US can learn as Germany’s leading party holds a sober debate over the topic in picking a replacement for Angela Merkel.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel receives flowers from Jodie, a refugee from Lebanon, as Migration Commissioner Annette Widmann-Mauz looks on, at a "Sports and Integration" event in Berlin, June 13.

Tuesday’s elections in the United States did little to help Americans define a middle ground on immigration. Perhaps they should take a cue from another big democracy, Germany. It has been equally convulsed on the issue. Yet it may soon hold a sober debate on the topic with an eye on finding a centrist solution.

Since 2015, when a million Muslim refugees flooded into the country, German politics has become more polarized. The far-right, anti-immigrant party Alternative for Germany has gained strength. So has the pro-immigrant Green party. Traditional parties in the middle, especially the dominant Christian Democratic Union, have started to lose local elections.

In October, those losses finally forced CDU leader Angela Merkel to announce her departure as party leader next month and eventually as Germany’s leader. The three candidates vying to replace her as party chief differ on what to do about migration. Yet they also know the country must find a consensus.

“We need to work out a way for people here to feel at home – people who have lived here a long time and people who have arrived more recently,” said one of the candidates, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, on Nov. 7. She added that the rest of Europe, which has also seen the rise of anti-immigrant parties, must join in the effort. “The question of how to protect ourselves from [migrant] criminals is not one we can answer in Germany alone,” she said.

The centrist parties feel some urgency. More than half of Germans now say they feel like strangers in their own land because of Muslim immigration, according to a new poll from the University of Leipzig. That is a big shift from before the 2015 refugee crisis. One in 3 believe foreigners come to Germany only for its generous welfare system. Close to half want a ban on Muslims moving to the country.

The other two candidates, corporate lawyer Friedrich Merz and health minister Jens Spahn, are more conservative than Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer yet do not want to rip the party apart over the issue. “You don’t win people’s confidence in security with harsh tones, with shrill demands,” said Kramp-Karrenbauer, who is Ms. Merkel’s chosen favorite to replace her.

Merkel herself has admitted mistakes in allowing the rapid influx of migrants without better preparing Germans. She has since struck deals with Turkey and other countries to restrain the flow of people. And she emphasizes stronger efforts to assimilate new arrivals in learning German and accepting basic values, such as equality for women.

As she slowly exits after 13 years in power, Merkel leaves a mixed legacy on immigration. But her own learning curve on the topic has prepared her party, and perhaps all of Germany, to tone down the rhetoric of fear and come together, as Kramp-Karrenbauer put it, to value “the binding above the divisive.”

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