Refugee encounter highlights Merkel's complicated image
Jul. 17, 2015
BERLIN (AP) — German Chancellor Angela Merkel's image appeared to take a hit this week as she faced accusations of making a young Palestinian refugee cry by telling her Germany can't let everybody stay, an encounter that came as Merkel was being blamed for strong-arming Greece into accepting more austerity.
But by Friday, many, including the 14-year-old refugee, had come to her defense, with some arguing that while the chancellor may be emotionally awkward, the criticism reflects an underlying distrust of Germany that's rooted in its Nazi past.
The encounter caught on video during a town hall-style meeting Wednesday caused a flurry of online outrage, both in Germany and abroad. The teen told Merkel her family had been waiting four years to get permanent leave to remain in Germany.
Merkel responded by telling her Germany can't accommodate everybody who wants to come and outlining her government's desire to speed up asylum applications so no one has to wait more than a year for a decision. Then the girl burst into tears.
Merkel's detractors seized upon the video as proof of her cold-hearted attitude, with commentators mocking her for patting the girl as she cried.
"Speechless how heartlessly Merkel makes it clear to a girl how hopeless her situation is," Daniel Hires, a Berlin-based entrepreneur, wrote on Twitter.
Italy's La Repubblica newspaper described Merkel's reaction as "cold, bureaucratic."
"This delivers yet another blow to the image of Europe's biggest power," the newspaper wrote, noting that it comes as left-leaning activists across Europe were urging people on social media to boycott Germany because of the government's hard line on Greece.
Olaf Boehnke, a political analyst, said the way the episode was portrayed in some media fed the cliche of the 'ugly German' that still prevails 70 years after the end of World War II.
"They reinforced the image of the cold chancellor who eats Greeks for breakfast and then can't show any warmth toward a young Palestinian girl," said Boehnke, who heads the Berlin office of the European Council on Foreign Relations.
Such criticism, often heard elsewhere in Europe, reached the front page of one of Germany's biggest-selling newsmagazines, Stern, this week. It portrayed Merkel with a steely gaze and the caption "Ice Queen" to describe her role in the bailout negotiations with Greece — sometimes portrayed as a showdown between Athens and Berlin.
Aware that her words were being broadcast across Europe, Merkel struck a more conciliatory tone Friday. Speaking in Parliament, she urged lawmakers to back the new bailout deal for Greece, which puts Germany on the hook for further loans to keep the government in Athens afloat.
"Let's imagine for a moment what it would mean if here in Germany desperate retirees had to queue in front of closed banks and wait to get a pension of 120 euros a week," she said.
"Make no mistake: The deal reached Monday morning was tough. First of all it was tough for the people in Greece," Merkel added.
Boehnke said one of the problems that Germany has had, including in the debate about whether Greece can remain in the euro, is its own heavy emphasis on rules.
"Germans have a tendency to talk about rules first, that's a German obsession because we live in a very rule-based society," he said. "Germans sometimes pretend as if obeying the rules is the most important thing. And then this girl comes along, she's been living here a long time, speaks perfect German and wants to integrate, and instead of saying OK, let's change the rules for her, we say no, 'Rules are rules.'"
That rules can and do change, even in Germany, is something Merkel can testify to. Since she became chancellor a decade ago, the law on immigration and asylum has gradually changed as Merkel's own center-right Christian Democrats began to accept that Germany needs more immigrants.
Whereas families such as those of Reem Sahwil, the teenage Palestinian refugee, might once have been deported even after decades in Germany, the country's Parliament recently passed a law making it easier for well-integrated migrants to stay. Officials in the northern port city of Rostock, where she lives, have said it is unlikely she or her family will face deportation.
The move by Parliament comes as Germany is seeing a sharp rise in refugee numbers, particularly from Syria and the Balkans. Figures released this week showed that 179,037 asylum applications were filed in the first six months of 2015, more than twice as many as during the same period last year and far more than in any other European country.
In recent years between half and two-thirds of asylum applicants were given permission to remain in Germany.
Asked about her tearful encounter with Merkel, Sahwil expressed no hard feelings Friday.
"She listened to me, and she also told me what she thinks about it, and I think that's OK," she told ARD television.
Merkel comments on immigration: http://bit.ly/1Vb9WDf (encounter with Palestinian girl at 44 minutes)
Geir Moulson in Berlin and Colleen Barry in Milan, Italy, contributed to this report.