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99 Luftballons

The German conservatives are floating new ideas to win back populist voters.
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The Christian Democratic Union has been trying out new policy proposals ahead of its upcoming election campaigns. So far, they have been faring poorly – and a few seem to have hurt the party more than they helped.

REUTERS/Christian Charisius

REUTERS/Christian Charisius

Kite-flying is thankless work in Berlin, both literally and figuratively: the German capital is too flat, and too far inland, to deliver the gusts needed to keep a kite in the air.

Berlin’s politicians, meanwhile, are far too tame to handle a kite – or a test balloon. As soon as someone sends up something controversial to test which way the political mood is blowing, someone else panics and reels it in again, ending the fun prematurely.

So it was once again after Chancellor Angela Merkel’s ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU) floated a controversial set of proposals it said would improve domestic security in response to a recent series of violent attacks in southern Germany. Federal interior minister Thomas de Maizière was first before the cameras, promising to boost police and security force spending, step up cybersecurity measures, and expedite deportation of non-German nationals who commit crimes or are deemed dangerous.

“In this way, we will in future increasingly use the instrument of deportation for foreign criminals and people likely to cause a threat,” said the minister, emphasising measures he said could be passed in the months before next year’s federal election.

As Germany enters election mode – state elections are next month, while state and federal elections will take place next year – the CDU is anxious to win back its traditional law-and-order mantle. But how far should it go? This week, CDU state interior ministers from Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party will present their own security proposals – a leaked draft of which contained several contentious measures, including banning full veils in public and an end to dual citizenship.

Both are long-time CDU bugbears, and regional party officials apparently feel now is the time to put them back on the agenda. The CDU’s long-standing concern over dual citizenship resurfaced after a recent pro-Erdogan demonstration in Cologne attracted 40,000 people, many with dual German and Turkish citizenship.

“That made clear we have tens of thousands of people in our country…who have German citizenship, for whatever reason, but who do not feel loyal to our country,” said Armin Schuster, a senior CDU MP spokesman on internal affairs.

But in the news dog days of August, the CDU security proposals were cat nip to journalists. At a heated government press conference after the proposals leaked, correspondents pestered government officials with questions: what was the terrorist threat posed by veiled women? How many concrete terror warnings did Germany face because of dual citizenship?

Returning to Earth

After leaving his spokesman to fend off the attacks, de Maizière came out again a day later, busily reeling in the political kite. He warned his state colleagues not to fight battles they will only lose. Banning veils might help win back CDU voters defecting to the populist fringes, but is likely to fall afoul of the constitutional court. Instead, the senior Merkel ally suggested the CDU should focus on concrete proposals that will boost public confidence and improve safety.

The measures he proposed were policy answers to recent failings exposed by the attacks in southern Germany: criminal police screening of all asylum applicants, and renewed efforts to reduce the time asylum seekers can remain after an application fails.

The federal interior minister also brought to earth another CDU security proposal that flew over silly season Berlin for a day: modifying medical confidentiality laws to make it easier to police a patient a doctor felt posed a terror risk.

That proposal was flagged many times over recent months after mental health issues were revealed to have played a role in last year’s Germanwings plane crash, as well as the Ansbach suicide bombing and mass shooting in Munich. But doctors’ groups reacted angrily to the idea of political interference and the consequences for doctor-patient confidentiality, and de Maizière said no immediate action would be taken.

Mr. de Maizière also said that, unlike his regional CDU colleagues, he had no plans to touch dual citizenship – reflecting the political realities in Berlin. Citizenship questions are a federal, not a state, matter. And the Social Democrats (SPD), Merkel’s federal coalition partner, say they will never reverse the dual citizenship law they introduced in 2000 to boost integration.

“The SPD is ready to talk about anything that will contribute to heightening security,” said party leader and vice-chancellor Sigmar Gabriel. “But we’re not available for populist rush jobs.”

After watching the CDU’s 24-hour round of kite-flying, Gabriel welcomed his cabinet colleague’s retreat from proposed bans on burkas and dual nationality. That, Gabriel added with a dose of Schadenfreude, was a welcome “slap in the face” for CDU “agitators”.

De Maizière’s efforts to end the CDU political kite flying have brought widespread praise, with even President Joachim Gauck praising his “sober clarification”.

For his part, the interior minister said that new laws and fresh bans were not always the answer in an uncertain world. “I reject the wearing of the burka,” he said. “But you cannot forbid everything you reject.”

But as Germany’s politicians enter election mode, with the fear of further terror attacks lingering in the background, it remains to be seen whether the CDU’s sobriety will hold or whether another shock will send its political kite soaring into the sky once more.