My German-born friend Peter Thiel — the world’s most successful contrarian — has a favorite interview question. “What important truth,” he asks tech wannabes, “do very few people agree with you on?”
The important truth about which very few people agree with me is that Angela Merkel has been a political disaster. The German chancellor has long been the darling of the pro-European media. In November 2015, The Economist called her “the indispensable European.” A month later, the Financial Times named her its “person of the year.” Time magazine proclaimed her “chancellor of the free world.”
These were extraordinary misjudgments. For the plaudits were raining down on a woman who had, just months before, made the single biggest error in the history of the postwar German republic.
On German television in July 2015, Merkel had reduced a young Palestinian refugee to tears by explaining that her family might have to face deportation. “There are thousands and thousands of people in Palestinian refugee camps,” the chancellor explained. “If we now say, ‘You can all come’ . . . . we just cannot manage that.” The waterworks worked. Six weeks later, Merkel had opened the gates of Germany and declared: “We can manage that.”
All kinds of historical explanations have been offered for Merkel’s epoch-making change of mind, including her East German upbringing and her clergyman father. Who knows? Faced with Reem Sahwil’s tears, the chancellor’s reaction was an impulsive attempt to comfort her, followed by a massive, unilateral U-turn, which she later had to reverse. Here was one of those rarities in politics: a full 360-degree pirouette.
Often in history it is not the motives that matter, but the consequences. Since the start of 2015, Germany has received 1.38 million “initial asylum applications,” about a third of them from Syrians. Three-quarters of the asylum seekers are aged 30 or younger; 60 percent are male. About half the applications have been approved, but only around 80,000 of those denied asylum have been deported. About 86 percent of accepted refugees are Muslims.
The full implications of this mass influx remain to be seen. According to the Pew Research Centre, the Muslim population of Germany (which was 6% in 2016) could be anything between 8.7 percent and 19.7 percent by 2050, depending on the future rate of immigration.
The short-run consequences, however, are clear. There has been a marked increase in crime. And there has been a seismic political backlash. The crime issue is controversial, but last month a rigorous, government-commissioned study was published by the Zürich University of Applied Sciences, based on data from the state of Lower Saxony. By the end of 2016, around 750,000 of the state’s eight million residents were not German citizens, and about 170,000 of them had applied for asylum.
The Zürich study reveals that asylum seekers were responsible for a surge in violent crime, which had fallen by 22 percent between 2007 and 2014, but rose by more than 10 percent from then until the end of 2016. More than 92 percent of that increase was attributable to the newcomers, with young men from Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia over-represented among the perpetrators.
And the victims? In nine out of 10 murders and three-quarters of cases of grievous bodily harm, they were other migrants. But in 70 percent of robberies and 58.6 percent of rape and sexual assault cases, the victims were German.
The political backlash has only just begun, but already it has transformed the German political landscape. In last year’s election, the anti-immigration party known as Alternative for Germany came third with 12.6 percent of the vote. The latest polls have it on 15 percent and rising. We are fast approaching the point when it will be the country’s second-largest party after Merkel’s Christian Democrats, or CDU. It is already large enough to make coalition-building an intractable challenge. Five months after the election, Germany still lacks a new government.
Merkel’s fans like to call her “Mutti” — “Mummy.” Well, this was the Mutti of all political blunders.
What next? The conventional wisdom is that she somehow hangs on. Maybe. A former ministerial colleague, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, once described her to me as a supreme tactician, whose “Merkel-vellian” skill at manoeuvring — her genius for maximising her options and eliminating rivals — compensated for her lack of strategy.
But we are still a week away from confirmation that the members of the Social Democratic Party will accept the “grand coalition” deal she has thrashed out with their leaders. In Germany, as elsewhere in western Europe, the growth of populist parties on both the left and the right has forced the centre-right and centre-left to set aside their 20th-century rivalry and to join forces. Yet both sides are uneasily aware that, with every passing year, their combined vote share is declining. The CDU will vote on Monday at a full party conference. The SPD’s decision depends on a postal vote of all 463,000 members between February 20 and March 2.
The conventional wisdom says Mutti scrapes through. But remember what Peter Thiel told you about conventional wisdom.
Niall Ferguson’s new book, “The Square and the Tower,” has just been published by Penguin Press.