Germany’s Angela Merkel secured her re-election as leader of the Christian Democratic Union at the party convention yesterday, setting the stage for another run for chancellor next year. But that predictable outcome has been overshadowed by Merkel’s more surprising support for a burqa ban in Germany. TIME reports:
Angela Merkel called for a ban on the burqa, a full-face veil worn mainly by Muslim women, in order to prevent “any parallel societies developing” as her party re-elected her leader to seek a fourth term as German Chancellor.
“In communication between people, which is of course essential to our living together, we have to show our faces,” she told delegates at the annual Christian Democrats (CDU) party conference in the northwestern city of Essen. “So the full veil should be forbidden wherever legally possible.”
Merkel’s announcement was greeted by spontaneous applause at the convention, but the international backlash from liberals has been swift. For those disillusioned with Donald Trump’s election and a series of populist victories across Europe, Merkel has lately been seen as the “liberal West’s last defender,” a solitary champion of liberal values against a rising tide of populism and intolerance. Few have embodied this view so succinctly as David Remnick, writing in The New Yorker after Trump’s election:
Suddenly, Germany, led by Angela Merkel, was the lonely bulwark of Europe and Atlanticism. And even she faced a strong nativist challenge, for the sin of admitting thousands of Syrian refugees into the country.
Those that have pinned their unrealistically high hopes on the German chancellor have been ignoring the underlying political reality in Germany, and the complexities of Merkel’s own position. For one thing, Merkel has never been a fully fledged soldier of multiculturalism: in fact, the German chancellor has previously denounced the concept of multikulti as a failure and stressed the need to integrate immigrant populations. In that regard, it was Merkel’s decision to open up Germany’s borders to mass migration from the Middle East that was the real break in policy.
That well-intentioned but inherently reckless move was bound to bear political costs. And sure enough, it has: Merkel’s refugee policy has caused a sharp drop in her approval ratings and has empowered opposition parties, including the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD).
Unlike some of her newfound critics, Merkel has clearly internalized this reality and is charting a course correction on her migrant policy. Throwing her support behind a burqa ban—which over 85% of Germans support in one form or another—is one low-risk way for Merkel to help shore up her right wing and demonstrate that she hears Germans’ legitimate concerns about integration. That may not be palatable to bien pensant liberals on either side of the Atlantic, but ignoring such concerns or dismissing them as pure bigotry would only further empower the populist forces that are opposed to Merkel.