Unlike the areas around many railway stations across the world, the square by Cologne’s main station has long been a central part of the city’s life, home to northern Europe’s largest gothic cathedral, and often a cultural and social hub: in December it hosted the city’s vibrant and colourful Christmas market, and in February will be part of the city’s Rose Monday carnival parade. However, its image has been altered in the public mind since the events of New Year’s eve when dozens of women were assaulted and robbed by several hundred men who gathered in the square, in what some are now describing as a coordinated attack.
The scale of the attacks is slowly becoming apparent: the most recent figures put the number of criminal complaints lodged by women in Cologne alone at over 500, including two rapes, with further attacks alleged in Stuttgart and Hamburg. While many of the attackers were said to be of Middle Eastern, or North African origin, 22 of the 32 suspects so far in Cologne, are asylum seekers, police have said. It has also emerged in the last couple of days that the man armed with a knife and a fake explosive, killed by police in Paris last week had temporarily lived in a refugee home in North Rhine-Westphalia.
The impact of the attacks has been immediate and striking. The head of the police force in Cologne was forced to resign last week, following criticisms of the force’s failure to prevent the attacks, but also over allegations that they had subsequently attempted to cover up the extent of the attacks, and the involvement of migrants. Cologne’s mayor Henriette Reker, who had previously worked with refugees, and herself was attacked by a right wing protester during her electoral campaign last year, found herself on the back foot over comments she made putting the onus on women to protect themselves, and faced calls to take a tougher stance.
The crisis has unsurprisingly been picked up by Germany’s burgeoning anti-migrant movement, keen to portray the assaults as a sign that their fears over Germany’s open door policy were bearing out. Over the weekend hundreds of anti-migrant demonstrators gathered in the city, alongside anti-fascist and women’s rights groups. Over the weekend, two Pakistanis were hospitalized, and one Syrian person was injured following attacks in the city, Cologne’s Express newspaper reported on Monday.
The bigger question is whether the crisis will have a longer-term impact on society and politics. Germany like many European countries has had a long and complicated relationship with its migrant population: One the one hand Germany’s early twentieth century history has meant that issues such as racism and discrimination have been cracked down on hard, and not countenanced particularly in the West of the country and it has a large and well integrated Turkish population. At the same time tensions have remained, particularly in the less affluent eastern regions. In the past three years, right wing movements have gained popularity, such as the political party Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD), which won over 7 percent of the votes in European elections held in 2014, and Pegida, an anti Islamic group that has held regular demonstrations.
However observers are cautious about overestimating the political impact. “There is certainly a risk of the news creating negative sentiment but whether that translates into large scale political action remains to be seen,” says Carsten Nickel, senior analyst at Teneo Intelligence. The centre left main opposition SPD is unlikely to be able to gain any ground from Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU, particularly in the wake of the crisis, while gains by the AfD have traditionally resulted in a strengthening for Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU, and political ally the CSU.
Nickel also argues that despite the renewed pressure on Merkel - including from within her own party - and moves by her to toughen up legislation for the deportation of asylum seekers who have committed crimes, its unlikely to shift policy on migration. “Even those who are pushing for an upper limit on the number of migrants know it’s completely unrealistic - and if you made that commitment you would only lose. Even within her party there have always been reservations about Merkel - whether on her handing of the euro zone crisis or green issues. But in the end of the day she’s the most popular politician, who has been able to capture the green, the urban, the female vote. And she’s repeatedly been able to deliver on it.”
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