Obama warns Europe of the dangers of withdrawing from the world in a challenging age

The Los Angeles Times reports: President Obama challenged European nations on Monday to resist the forces that would divide their increasingly fragile union, calling their cooperation with one another and the U.S. essential to combating a new wave of economic and security trials.

Speaking in Germany on the final day of a three-nation international trip, Obama revived a theme he first expounded on when he visited this country as a candidate eight years ago and spoke of a more collaborative approach to the world’s challenges that would rely on strong European partners. His vision has helped navigate the global economic collapse, forge an international climate agreement and launch a diplomatic approach toward curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Obama said.

“None of those things could have happened if I, if the United States, did not have a partnership with a strong and united Europe,” he argued.

But in the wake of the recent attacks on European capitals by Islamic State, the continued instability of the Middle East that resulted in a refugee crisis that has hit Europe hardest and continued economic insecurity for many, Obama acknowledged a tendency “to withdraw” that was increasingly common on both sides of the Atlantic. Such detachment could only offer “false comfort,” Obama warned. [Continue reading…]


German spies imply Snowden leaked files for Russia

The Local reports: NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden could have been acting under the influence of the Russian government, the heads of Germany’s foreign and domestic intelligence agencies said on Friday.

“It’s very remarkable that he exclusively published files about the work of the NSA with the BND [Germany’s foreign intelligence service] or the British secret service GCHQ,” BND head Gerhard Schindler told Focus magazine.

“Leaking the secret service files is an attempt to drive a wedge between western Europe and the USA – the biggest since the Second World War,” Hans-Georg Maaßen, head of Germany’s domestic intelligence agency (Verfassungsschutz), told Focus in the double interview. [Continue reading…]


Angela Merkel, accused of betraying core values, faces a balancing act with Turkey


The New York Times reports: Last September, Chancellor Angela Merkel was widely seen as an idealist, charitably welcoming hundreds of thousands of refugees to Germany in the face of stiff opposition at home and from European allies. But the influx swiftly became too much to handle.

Fast forward, and this year it is a rather different Angela Merkel at the helm, with an approach toughened by experience. This is the pragmatic Angela Merkel, who entered a calculated deal with an increasingly authoritarian President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey to try to stanch the migrant flow.

Ms. Merkel now stands accused by a new chorus of critics of not only betraying her ideals on immigration but also of jeopardizing core European values, as the costs of doing business with Mr. Erdogan become painfully clearer by the week.

Mr. Erdogan, who has stifled the news media at home and shown little tolerance for criticism, has used his new leverage in Europe to extend his brand of censorship to Germany, employing diplomatic threats, and now a private lawsuit, to try to silence a German comedian who skewered him.

The satirist, Jan Böhmermann, had earned plaudits but also criticism when, on his TV show two weeks ago, he read a crude poem, which he himself labeled “abusive criticism,” and accused Mr. Erdogan of lewd behavior and fierce political repression.

That case has now become Exhibit A in the unpalatable bargains Ms. Merkel has made in pursuit of security and political survival, or what might be known as realpolitik version 2016. [Continue reading…]

The New York Times reports: Chancellor Angela Merkel, caught in a bind by Turkey’s bid to silence a German satirist who lampooned President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said on Friday that her government would allow the case to go forward, but that the outdated law that permits it would be repealed with effect from 2018.

Announcing the decision to allow the court case against Jan Böhmermann, the comic, to proceed, Ms. Merkel repeatedly insisted that Germany backs the freedom of press, opinion and culture and believes in the rule of law. “Not the government, but the courts and the legal system will have the last word,” she said.

Pointedly referring to Turkey as a partner and a NATO ally, Ms. Merkel said that Germany expects the government in Ankara to heed democratic norms and that Berlin has observed attempts to restrict freedom of media and the justice system in Turkey “with great concern.” [Continue reading…]

Anna Sauerbrey writes: Though it’s a fact often overlooked by the rest of the world, Germany is a funny place — seriously. Long before Jon Stewart and Samantha Bee redefined topical American humor, comedians here perfected the art of sharp political satire.

For the most part, German politicians get the joke. But now politics and comedy are colliding in a new way — a collision that exposes the tragicomedy of modern European politics in a way that no late-night monologue ever could. [Continue reading…]


The new Europeans

The New York Times reports: Among the first Syrians to show up in Eisenärzt was Yasser, a stocky, 37-year-old seaman from the Syrian port city Latakia. When the bus dropped him off in front of his new home, Yasser told me, he had the sense that none of this strange new reality could be his. He said he had felt that way since a day last summer, when he was working on a ship bound for Tartus, Syria, and received word from a friend back home that uniformed men were looking for him. Until then, life in Latakia had still been manageable, despite the war. The city, a stronghold of Bashar al-Assad, had not seen the kind of fighting that has shattered other parts of the country. Yasser told me that he could still find work at sea to provide for himself and his wife, an architect in her mid 20s. They had lived a good life in Latakia; he had decorated their home with various souvenirs from his international travel — a sword from China, a tiger sculpture from Sierra Leone. In his free time, he rode his Suzuki motorcycle, and the roar of its 1,000-c.c. engine was a source of pleasure and pride. Yasser told me that he completed his mandatory military service years ago, but the men in uniform wanted to re-enlist him to fight for Assad. He could not fathom fighting for any side in the conflict. “I cannot hit a cat,” he told me. Rather than return to Syria, Yasser said he disembarked from his ship off Istanbul and joined the human tide making its way to the European Union. His wife remained in Latakia. (Yasser, like many other Syrians I met in Germany, asked that I withhold his last name to protect the safety of relatives back home.)

[In September, when] Yasser arrived at the Mallersdorfer Sisters’ former residence [which had been sold to the municipality for the purpose of housing asylum seekers], he was shown to his single room on an upper floor and greeted by the caretaker of the residence, Beni Beilhack, a multiple-pierced 36-year-old with thinning hair and a persistent smile. In the following days, Yasser, bored, began to follow Beilhack around, hoping to help with work around the residence. Eventually, Beilhack delegated some tasks to Yasser: repairing a broken doorknob, blowing leaves off the hiking trails near the residence. By October, Beilhack had outfitted Yasser with work clothes and made him his unofficial assistant. The two communicated with a peculiar mix of English, German and Arabic. Under Yasser’s tutelage, Beilhack’s command of Arabic profanities expanded rapidly, and Beilhack dispensed this knowledge liberally throughout his workday, to the delight of many of the young Syrian men. Beilhack, who worked as a truck driver before the Syrians came to town, told me he did not miss his old job, and he seemed to relish his interaction with the Syrians. He started inviting Yasser to family dinners. After school, Beilhack’s son, Luca, then 12, often came by the residence. The Syrians were generally “warmer” than the local residents, Luca told me, adding, “I’d be happy if they lived here forever.”

Beilhack’s 64-year-old mother, Evelyn, also works as a caretaker at the residence, where she lives on the ground floor with her husband. Evelyn held the position previously, when the sisters lived there. When Evelyn learned the Syrians would be moving in, she rejoiced. The nuns nitpicked about the smallest details, she told me, creating an oppressive work environment. She grew up in what she called a “very international” town, a place called Geretsried, south of Munich, which was settled by Germans expelled from Eastern Europe after World War II. Later, Southern European guest workers arrived. Growing up there left her open to seeing what the asylum seekers would be like. “You hear from a lot of different places about what an abominable people they are — not Syrians, but altogether, this whole mass of asylum seekers that are streaming in here,” she told me. People called them “terrible and slobs and poorly raised and primitive.” She wanted to find out for herself, she said. “I thought: I’ll take this on. I want to see this. I want to know this.”

Her experience with the Syrians did not confirm the prejudices. “They are respectful; they’re nice,” she said. Like her son, she seemed to enjoy the Syrians’ company. One evening, a saxophonist from Damascus serenaded her in the former chapel, stripped of religious relics, where the Mallersdorfer Sisters used to worship. The saxophonist stood next to the recently installed foosball table and puffed out a version of Lionel Richie’s “Hello.” One of the young Syrian men sitting next to Evelyn feigned being her companion in a cafe. “Garçon! Two glasses of wine!”

Through his conversations with the Beilhacks, Yasser began to understand something of life in Germany. Evelyn told him how much money was deducted from people’s paychecks for taxes and health insurance, and the cost of living generally seemed far higher than in prewar Syria. Back at home, his wife did some work in a private office, but he would not allow her to work for a firm. Women in Syria were not supposed to hold down such jobs, he said. In Germany, however, he would have to reconsider. He and his wife probably wouldn’t be able to afford a house and a car if she didn’t work too. “Life here is hard,” he said. If the war in Syria ended, he told me, he would go back in a minute. [Continue reading…]


Endgame for the IMF-EU feud over Greece’s debt

Yanis Varoufakis writes: The feud between the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the European side of Greece’s troika of creditors is old news. However, Wikileaks’ publication of a dialogue between key IMF players suggests that we are approaching something of a hazardous endgame.

Ever since the first Greek ‘bailout’ program was signed, in May 2010, the IMF has been violating its own “primary directive”: the obligation not to fund insolvent governments. As a result, the IMF’s leadership has been facing a revolt from its staff members who demand an exit strategy arguing that, if the EU continues to obstruct the debt relief necessary to restore the solvency of the Greek government, the IMF should leave the Greek program.
Five years on, this IMF-EU impasse continues, causing a one-third collapse of Greek GDP and fuelling hopelessness to a degree that has made real reform harder than ever.

Back in February 2015, when I first met Poul Thomsen (the IMF’s European chief) in a Paris hotel, a fortnight after assuming Greece’s finance ministry, he appeared even keener than I was to press for a debt write off: “At a minimum”, he told me “€54 billion of Greece’s debt left over from the first ‘bailout’ should be written off immediately in exchange for serious reforms.”

This was music to my ears, and made me keen to discuss what he meant by “serious reforms”. It was a discussion that never got formally off the ground as Germany’s finance minister vetoed all discussion on debt relief, debt swaps (which were my compromise proposal), indeed any significant change to the failed program.

What new light does the leaked dialogue between Thomsen and Delia Velculescu (the IMF’s Greek mission chief) throw on this saga? [Continue reading…]


Report: The foreign fighters phenomenon in the EU – profiles, threats & policies

International Centre for Counter-Terrorism – The Hague reports: Despite the widespread media attention for foreign fighters in Europe, very little is known about the phenomenon itself, something also evidenced by the lack of a single foreign fighter definition across the EU.

In a study commissioned by the Netherlands National Coordinator for Security and Counterterrorism (NCTV), ICCT addresses this gap by analysing not only the numbers and characteristics of foreign fighters across the EU, but also how the Union and Member States assess the threat of foreign fighters as well as their policy responses regarding security, preventive and legislative measures. The Report also outlines a series of policy options aimed both at the EU and its Member States.

Findings include:

  • Of a total estimated 3,922 – 4,294 foreign fighters from EU Member States, around 30% have returned to their home countries.
  • A majority of around 2,838 foreign fighters come from just four countries: Belgium, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, with Belgium having the highest per-capita FF contingent.
  • There is no clear-cut profile of a European foreign fighter. Data indicates that a majority originate from metropolitan areas, with many coming from the same neighbourhoods, that an average of 17% are female, and that the percentage of converts among foreign fighters ranges from 6% to 23%.
  • The radicalisation process of foreign fighters is reported to be short and often involves circles of friends radicalizing as a group and deciding to leave jointly for Syria and Iraq.

[Continue reading…]


How did the far right gain so much ground in Germany?

By Sergi Pardos-Prado, University of Oxford

Some of the oldest and most established party systems in the world seem to be imploding. Unprecedented levels of electoral volatility, the collapse of the historical mainstream, and the emergence of new populist alternatives are part of a vertiginous process that is not always easy to comprehend.

A new wave of radical right parties is now proving capable of reshaping democracies that once seemed immune to them. The recent success of Alternative for Germany (AfD) in the regional elections is just the latest example of the establishment being shaken at the ballot box.

In the March 13 elections, AfD, a party that was only founded in 2013, won seats in eight German state parliaments. It came second, winning up to 24% of the popular vote, in states such as Saxony-Anhalt in East Germany.

What explains the success?

Research on radical right politics has focused on the socio-demographic profile of anti-immigrant voters, and on national characteristics such as the state of the economy. While illuminating, both approaches have proved insufficient.

There is a high degree of certainty about the sociological profile of the anti-immigrant voter. They tend to be working class, low educated, unemployed, male, nationalistic, and somewhat authoritarian.

But all established European democracies have significant portions of the electorate sharing these characteristics. So this approach can’t explain why radical parties have emerged in France and the Netherlands, for instance, but not in Spain or Portugal.

[Read more…]


German election: Is this really a verdict on Merkel’s open door to refugees?

By Katharina Karcher, University of Cambridge

Three German federal states have elected new parliaments in regional votes that have seen major gains made by Alternative for Germany (AfD), a right-wing populist party that wants drastically to reduce immigration to Germany.
State parliaments in Baden-Wuerttemberg, Rhineland-Palatinate and Saxony-Anhalt have been reshuffled, although the AfD didn’t actually come first in any of the votes.

These elections were being framed as a verdict on Merkel’s “open-door” refugee policy. Critics of her pro-refugee stance have been eager to observe that it has isolated her in her own party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), and alienated many voters. Now, they say, the electorate has punished the whole party for Merkel’s single-handed attempt to help refugees.

At first glance, it seems they were right. The CDU has lost votes in all three federal states, and more than a few former CDU voters have switched to supporting the AfD.

The anti-Merkel, anti-establishment, anti-immigration rhetoric appealed particularly to voters in Saxony-Anhalt, where the AfD became the second-strongest party. It also secured good results in Baden-Wuerttemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate, winning more than 10% of the vote.

But to suggest that Merkel’s refugee policy sent voters “flocking to the populist party” is wrong, even dangerous.

[Read more…]


German elections: AfD’s remarkable gains don’t tell the whole story

The Guardian reports: The results for German anti-refugee party Alternative für Deutschland in Sunday’s regional elections are remarkable: it won 15% of the vote in Baden-Württemberg, 12.5% in Rhineland-Palatinate and more than 24% in the east German state of Saxony-Anhalt – the strongest showing for a rightwing, populist party since the end of the second world war.

The last time these three states voted (in 2011), AfD didn’t even exist. Whatever way you look at the numbers, the AfD result is significant. However, the prevailing narrative in swaths of the press on Monday morning – that the results are a rejection of Angela Merkel’s refugee policy – is simplistic.

Here’s why. In Saxony-Anhalt, where the AfD did best, the vote for Merkel’s CDU held. The party dropped less than three points compared with 2011.

According to an exit poll for the state, a substantial majority of voters across all parties, except the AfD, prefers an open and tolerant society to a traditional one. The strongest source of AfD support, in the east German state and elsewhere, were previous non-voters (in all three states turnout was up by 10 points): [Continue reading…]

The Guardian reports: The German government will stick by its existing refugee policy, a spokesman has said, after the anti-immigrant Alternative für Deutschland made strong gains in regional elections on Sunday.

Asked if the results in three German states, where support for chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives dwindled, would lead to a change in policy, Steffen Seibert said: “The German government will continue to pursue its refugee policy with all its might both at home and abroad.” [Continue reading…]


Germany’s Trump-like problem: Right-wing, anti-foreigner movement poised for big election win

The Los Angeles Times reports: A populist far-right German party that has fiercely attacked the government for letting in more than a million refugees in the last year is expected to be the big winner in three important state elections Sunday that will serve as a referendum on Chancellor Angela Merkel’s controversial open-door policies.

The party has aimed its appeal to German voters with a shrill anti-foreigner bent that has some similarities to Donald Trump’s bid to win the Republican nomination for U.S. president.

The Alternative for Germany party, or AfD, has campaigned hard against refugees streaming into the country, mostly from Syria and Iraq, and it has surged in public opinion polls from about 3% last summer to as high as 20% ahead of elections in three of Germany’s 16 states. That is far above the 4.7% the AfD won in the 2013 federal election just half a year after it was formed mainly to oppose Europe’s single currency, the euro, and the expensive European Union financial bailouts to Greece. [Continue reading…]


Third Republic: Germany enters a dangerous new political era

Dirk Kurbjuweit writes: Seven or eight months ago, Germany was a different country than it is today. There were no controversial political issues demanding immediate action and Chancellor Angela Merkel’s leadership was uncontested. It was quiet and comfortable. But then the refugees began streaming into Europe and the country’s sleepy tranquility came to a sudden end. Since then, disgusting eruptions of xenophobia have come in quick succession, a right-wing populist party is on its way to holding seats in several state parliaments, Merkel has gained approval from the center-left Social Democrats and from the Greens, some conservatives want to throw her out and the state is overwhelmed. Does anyone know what is happening? What is wrong with this country?

For Germany, this is the second democratic republic, if one leaves out East Germany, since it was only a faux democracy. First came the Weimar Republic, from 1918 to 1933, and then, since 1949, the Federal Republic, which simply continued following the momentous events of 1989. But now, it looks as though the refugee crisis has brought a significant rupture. To be sure, the German constitution and the country’s institutions won’t be called into question any time soon. But the conventions governing Germany’s political interactions are changing with incredible speed.

A crisis of representation is necessarily accompanied by jolts to the political party system. Some of those jolts have been a long time in the making, but they are now becoming apparent as the refugee crisis takes hold. It could be that our country is currently experiencing lasting change. The contours of a Third Republic are becoming apparent. [Continue reading…]


Outsourcing a humanitarian crisis to Turkey – is that the European thing to do?

By Marianna Fotaki, University of Warwick

European countries plan to send thousands of refugees back to Turkey in a deal aimed at preventing people from trying to reach the EU by sea.

In what is being described as a “one in, one out” deal, anyone washing up on the shores of Greece will be sent back to Turkey, with one person being transferred from a Turkish refugee camp in their place.

But the deal, which is yet to be finalised, is flawed from the outset. Denying refugees the right to apply for asylum as they reach the EU is against international humanitarian law. And refusing protection to unarmed people fleeing war and persecution by sending them back to Turkey, a country under threat of a civil war, is unconscionable.

European Union leaders must be both desperate and clueless to pursue this. If the goal is to save the European Union from implosion, the question is on what terms will its unity be maintained?

[Read more…]


Refugee crisis magnified by European divisions


Der Spiegel reports: A rickety gate of galvanized wire is all that separates desperation from hope. The gate is part of the fence erected in the farming village of Idomeni on the border between Greece and Macedonia. At this moment, some 12,000 people are waiting for it to be opened.

It’s the gateway to Europe and the gateway to Germany.

A woman in boots and a blue uniform stands guard in front of the gate. Her name is Foteini Gagaridou and she is an official with the Greek border police — and she looks exhausted. All it would take for her to open the border would be to pull a thin metal pin out of the latch, but she’s not allowed to.

If it were up to her, she says, she would let every single one of these people pass through, just as they were able to do just a few weeks earlier — across the border to Macedonia and on through Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia to Austria, where they could continue their journey to Germany on what is known as the Balkan Route. It’s the same path chosen by hundreds of thousands of refugees last year, but the Balkan Route is now closed. It ends at Gagaridou’s wire gate.

This is where Fortress Europe begins, secured with razor wire and defended with tear gas. Desperate scenes played out here on Monday, reminiscent of those witnessed in Hungary back in September. A group of young men used a steel beam as a battering ram to break down the gate. Rocks flew through the air as the gate flew off its hinges, prompting the volleying of tear gas cartridges and stun grenades from the Macedonian side. Men could be seen running and children screaming. One woman lay on the ground with her daughter, crying.

This frontier has become Europe’s new southern border, with Greece serving as Europe’s waiting room — and the possible setting for a humanitarian disaster. Around 32,000 migrants are currently stranded in the country, a number that the Greek Interior Ministry says could quickly swell to 70,000. The aid organization Doctors Without Borders is even expecting 200,000 refugees. Greece’s reception camps are already full, and the highly indebted country is stretched well beyond its capacity.

The decision as to whether and how many refugees will be able to cross the border isn’t one for border guard Gagaridou to make. Rather, it will be taken by the Macedonian government. Macedonia, for its part, is pointing fingers at countries further to the north, noting it is they who have tightened their borders, especially Austria, which created a chain reaction of border closures last week. The countries apparently felt they could wait no longer for the broader European solution German Chancellor Angela Merkel has promised will result from a special EU summit scheduled for March 7.

Merkel wants to see Turkey stem the flow of refugees and put a stop to the exodus to Europe. European leaders agreed on Feb. 18 that this plan remains the “priority.” But Austria and the Balkan states nevertheless moved ahead and closed their borders.

Idomeni has become a symbol of the current political chaos in Europe and the crumbling of a joint European refugee policy. The town is emblematic of the new Europe of fences. It is here that German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open border policies have met their end. Under Austria’s leadership, the Balkan Route has been closed in the precise move Berlin had hoped to avoid.

Merkel has begun warning of the EU’s disintegration “into small states” that will be unable to compete in a globalized world, as well as of the possibility that border controls might soon be reintroduced all across Europe.

Were Europe in agreement, it would be unproblematic to accommodate 2-3 million refugees, given the Continent’s population of a half billion people. From such a perspective, the current spat actually seems somewhat ridiculous. But in the run up to next week’s EU summit, Europe is gripped by strife. Europe’s greatest achievement, the opening of its borders through the Schengen agreement, is at stake, and the increasingly toxic atmosphere between countries has reached alarming dimensions. [Continue reading…]


Germany’s refugee crisis


Berlin’s museum tours in Arabic forge a bridge to refugees


The New York Times reports: The Pergamon Museum is home to the famous Ishtar Gate, a monument of blue and white tile decorated with golden lions and daisies that was once the entrance to ancient Babylon. When Kamal Alramadhani, a 25-year-old Iraqi economics student, saw it for the first time this month, “I got goose bumps,” he said, pointing to his arm.

“It’s from Iraq,” he added quietly, through an Arabic translator. “My country.” A native of Mosul, Mr. Alramadhani studied economics at the University of Baghdad and came to Germany in October, part of a wave of asylum seekers that is stirring opposition here but also leading the government to look for ways to help the migrants adjust.

That afternoon, Mr. Alramadhani and about 30 others — some of them teenagers who had walked much of the way from Syria — were visiting the museum for the first time, on a free Arabic-language tour. It is part of a new and growing state-financed program to introduce the refugees to Germany’s cultural heritage — even, of course, when some of that heritage comes from the Middle East.

The visits can be fraught. “Sometimes people say: ‘The Germans have all our heritage! They stole it!’” said Zoya Masoud, 27, who led the Arabic-language tour that afternoon at the Museum of Islamic Art, which is part of the Pergamon Museum and filled with treasures from empires past. Often, the visitors say the art is probably better off in Berlin because so much in Syria has been destroyed by the war and the Islamic State, Ms. Masoud said.

Other times, the tours bring up raw memories for visitors who have arrived in the last three months. At a painted marble wall niche from a house in Damascus that dates to the 15th and 16th century and was inhabited by Samaritans, a Christian minority, “some people want to cry,” Ms. Masoud said. “When they see the colors and the shapes, they get chills.”

Ms. Masoud is not a refugee — she grew up in Damascus, a child of Syrian and Lebanese parents, and moved to Europe to study in 2010, before Syria fell into civil war. She is one of 19 guides — 18 from Syria and one from Iraq — who are part of a program, called Multaka, or “meeting point” in Arabic, which began in December and is aimed at training refugees to become museum guides. [Continue reading…]