Today Angela Merkel will meet David Cameron in Downing Street. She will tell him what she can do – and what she cannot do – to help keep Britain in the EU. Yet she might like to begin by telling him what she plans to do to keep her own people behind the EU project, for in Germany the Eurofederalist consensus is being challenged like never before.
In Germany, as in Britain, the most emotive issue is immigration. In Germany, as in Britain, people are scared to discuss this issue frankly, for fear of being branded racists. And now a new movement has emerged to fill this vacuum: Patriotische Europaer Gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlandes, aka Pegida – Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West.
Who are Pegida? What do they want? In a way, it hardly matters. Ostensibly, the movement’s manifesto seems relatively uncontentious: a call for Germany to adopt stricter criteria for asylum seekers, and promote fuller integration for those refugees who do make the grade. Yet the movement’s main activity has been a series of open air rallies, and these rallies have inevitably attracted all sorts of disparate supporters, from bourgeois Hausfraus to football hooligans, from disgruntled conservatives to Neo Nazis.
‘Do not follow those who have called these rallies,’ implored Merkel last week. ‘All too often they have prejudice, coldness, even hatred in their hearts.’ It seems the vast majority of Germans agree. Pegida began in Dresden, where their weekly rallies have attracted five figure crowds, but attempts to stage rallies elsewhere in Germany have been outnumbered by far bigger counter-demonstrations. Yesterday, the German establishment gave symbolic backing to these counter-protesters, plunging Germany’s most iconic buildings – the Brandenburg Gate, Cologne Cathedral, etc – into darkness. The message to the wider world is clear: Germany has learnt the lessons of its racist past; Germany is not a racist country; the racist atrocities of the Third Reich will never happen here again.
Of course this is all well and good, but there’s something about it that bothers me. Naturally, with church and state and big business united in opposition, respectable people will be deterred from attending Pegida’s demonstrations. Without respectable support Pegida may well fade away. Yet have Pegida’s supporters been encouraged to engage in mainstream politics? Or have they merely been shamed into silence? And without Pegida, will their discontent find an even more virulent outlet elsewhere? A mass racist movement is inconceivable in modern Germany, but the fact remains that Nazism owed its success to respectable, misguided people who felt ignored and marginalised. Germany needs to listen to its malcontents, the people who feel the status quo has abandoned them. And so does Britain, before we spawn a Pegida of our own.
Is it possible for Germans to hold an honest debate about immigration? Sadly, I fear the answer may be No. The Bundesrepublik’s atonement for the Holocaust has been fundamental to its renaissance as a bastion of liberal values. Yet this burden of responsibility has stymied German attempts to talk openly about immigration, and what it means to be a modern German, or a modern European for that matter. Germany is uniquely shackled by its awful past. Britain is not shackled in the same way. We owe it to our European partners to lead the way. In Germany, and in Britain, the immigration issue refuses to go away. The only way forward is to talk about it, and, as always that means listening to people whose views we do not share.