„Mein rechter, rechter Platz ist frei, ich wünsche mir den/die … herbei! [My right-hand, right-hand spot is free, I wish … to me!]“ is a popular German child’s play, similar to musical chairs, in which one kid picks and calls for another kid to come by its side. Whilst children games surely do not allow us to draw inference regarding (international) politics, they let us take a glimpse at some of the most basic norms and idiosyncrasies of people, cultures and societies: The act of choosing who may come by our side. As e.g. Heidrun Friese pointed out, the urge to differentiate between ‘friend’ and ‘enemy’ when faced with someone unknown is present in every means of making a distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them’.[1] While large parts of Europe and the US experience waves of rightwing populism and/or conservative governments, we tend to sympathize with Robert Putnam’s two-level game theory for explaining the outcome of international agreements over the interplay with each governments’ domestic interests. Interestingly enough, when Putnam developed his famous approach in 1988, he drew significantly from his observations of the 1978 G7 summit in the German by-then capital Bonn.[2] I argue that the current puzzle of Germany’s refugee politics requires us to read Putnam’s claims in reverse.

Everybody Looked to the Left, Now Everybody Looks to the Right? 

In the night of September 4, 2015, Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel and Austria’s chancellor Werner Faymann decided to open their countries’ borders for stranded refugees in Hungary. As hundreds of thousands of refugees floated into both countries, yet another German word made international career: Willkommenskultur (welcome culture).[3] At that time, the media was full of pictures and videos admiring Germans handing out food, toys, clothes, and what not to just arriving protection seekers. In other parts of German society, however, the euphoric atmosphere tangibly shifted more and more from sceptics to critique and hostility: Burning asylum centers, violent mobs in front of refugee buses and fear after attacks conducted by radicalized migrants and refugees made the news. Did German society become schizophrenic?

While the election of the German Parliament, along with the chancellorship, is yet to be held in Autumn 2017, Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) already pays its price ever since by losing significantly on the regional level in the five federal state elections. In mid-March 2016 and September 2016, the CDU dropped between -2.7 to -5.7 in Rheinland-Pfalz, Sachsen-Anhalt, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, and Berlin – and by tremendous -12 % in Baden-Württemberg.[4] Simultaneously, the 2013-established rightwing nationalist ‘Alternative for Germany’ (AfD), which connected much of their policy ideas to refugees and security, gained between 12.6 and 24.3 percentage points.[5] This is probably why various established news sources interpret ‘the phenomena AfD’ as a symbol of criticism towards Merkel’s refugee politics. What is too often forgotten, however, is that the CDU’s governmental coalition partner (of the national level), the Social Democrats (SPD), lost in four of the same five abovementioned provinces much more than Merkel’s party. To be more precise: -5, -6.7, -10.4 and -10.9 percentage points; the largest numbers in the exact same provinces where the AfD won their most and the CDU lost their least.[6]

While we surely must remember that this are just the results of five Federal Länder out of 16, we can move towards an explanation when utilizing the ARD survey results on the most crucial aspects for voters to make their choice. Across all Federal Länder, the survey conducted found that ‘Social Justice’ and ‘Economy and Work’ were considered to be more crucial than ‘refugees’ for the participants’ electoral decision. At the same time, 80-90% of participating AfD voters, amongst others, disclosed agreement to the statement of voting the party to set a sign against the traditional parties and/or the state of democracy.[7]

Again, the misleading case of Germany’s refugee discourse eventually teaches us to reread Robert Putnam’s two-level game theory. The CDU may not have lost as many voters as the SPD, yet they lost; unlike many analysts’ claims, the true reasons for this might be dissatisfaction with the governmental coalition’s social, economic and welfare policies, not its refugee politics. Yet, discourse linked those developments irreversibly,[8] even though Germany experiences falling unemployment rates since 2009.[9] Be it for or against more left or more right politics: All five provincial elections were able to mobilize their highest rate of electoral participation, countering the longstanding tendency of decline. Arguably, it is a message for emotional dissent of a large minority which is not yet creating important win-sets for Germany to undergo serious turns in its refugee politics – despite the fact that there is not much cooperative ground existing among the Dublin countries for a new international agreement.

Whatever the motivations for suspending the Dublin Agreement for Syrians between August 21 and October 21 might have been: Merkel acted against all intra-national and even intra-party critique, electoral losses etc. and still has not called for a refugee in-take limit but for a redistribution of the absolute numbers of the refugees in Europe. These developments contradict the simplicity of Putnam’s (1988) theory. For buying the refugee politics domestically more, the often admired German model needs to invest in the social aspects of its social market economy again – the picking and choosing of its societal and market participants, however, remains to be grounded in neoliberal practices.

Image: https://www.flickr.com/photos/alinss/16141426767/sizes/l/


[1] Heidrun Friese, “Grenzen der Gastfreundschaft. Die Bootsflüchtlinge von Lampedusa und die europäische Frage“ (Bielefeld: transcript, 2014).

[2] Robert D. Putnam, “Diplomacy and domestic politics: the logic of two-level games”, International Organization 42 (1988): 427-460.

[3] For a discussion of Germany’s welcome culture in September 2015, see: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/sep/06/germany-refugee-crisis-syrian

[4] In Rheinland-Pfalz, the CDU lost -3,4, in Berlin -5.7, in Baden-Württemberg -12, in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern -4, and -2.7 in Sachsen-Anhalt (Sources: wahl.tagesschau.de; https://wahl.tagesschau.de/wahlen/2016-09-04-LT-DE-MV/index.shtml, https://wahl.tagesschau.de/wahlen/2016-03-13-LT-DE-ST/, https://wahl.tagesschau.de/wahlen/2016-09-18-LT-DE-BE/index.shtml).

[5] In Rheinland-Pfalz, the AfD gathered +12.6, in Berlin +14.2, in Baden-Württemberg +15.1, in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern +20.8 and in Sachsen-Anhalt +24.3 percentage points.

[6] In Berlin, the SPD lost -6.7, in Baden-Württemberg -10.4, in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern -5, and in Sachsen-Anhalt -10.9. The only exception is Rheinland-Pfalz, where the SPD gained +0.5 percentage points (ibid.).

[7] Ibid.

[8] For a critical discussion of Western Asylum politics and discourse, see: Helen O’Nions, “Asylum – A Right Denied. A Crucial Analysis of European Asylum Policy” (Farnham/Burlington: Ashgate, 2014); and Vicki Squire, “The Exclusionary Politics of Asylum” (Hampshire/New York: Palgrave, 2009).

[9] Statista, “Arbeitslosenquote in Deutschland im Jahresdurchschnitt von 1995 bis 2016”: https://de.statista.com/statistik/daten/studie/1224/umfrage/arbeitslosenquote-in-deutschland-seit-1995/.