Germany: Engine of Europe

As the election approaches, Germany welcomes Afghan refugees — for now

Key Points
  • Chancellor Angela Merkel has said Berlin could grant asylum to about 10,000 Afghans.
  • The arrival of over 1.2 million refugees in 2015 proved a tough and divisive subject for Europe's leaders.
  • The withdrawal of American and allied troops from Afghanistan and the ensuing takeover by the Taliban have sparked fears of a new wave of asylum seekers at Europe's shores.
Civilians prepare to board a plane during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan August 18, 2021.
US Marines | via Reuters

LONDON — German politicians have struck a welcoming tone toward Afghan refugees as voters gear up to choose a new chancellor next month, but experts warn this could be short-lived.

In recent days, Germany, like many other Western countries, has been working to evacuate German and Afghan citizens who have supported its work on the ground over the past 20 years from Afghanistan.

Chancellor Angela Merkel has said Berlin could grant asylum to about 10,000 Afghans. Germany's foreign office said Wednesday that since Monday, around 1,600 people had been evacuated, including Germans, Afghans and nationals of international partners.

These are people who worked for the German forces or German aid agencies — and the number of eligible people seems to be very limited.
Holger Schmieding
Chief economist at Berenberg

However, the withdrawal of American and allied troops from Afghanistan and the ensuing takeover by the Taliban have sparked fears of a new wave of asylum seekers at Europe's shores. The arrival of over 1.2 million refugees in 2015, mostly fleeing war in Syria, proved a tough and divisive subject for Europe's leaders. This was particularly true in Germany, where nearly half a million refugees applied for asylum, according to the U.N.'s refugee agency.

At the time, Merkel was criticized for keeping the German borders open to those fleeing to safety, even though she negotiated a relocation plan within the EU designed to share the burden across the member states.

However, Holger Schmieding, chief euro zone economist at Berenberg Bank, said this time, the tone is different.

"These are people who worked for the German forces or German aid agencies — and the number of eligible people seems to be very limited," Schmieding told CNBC via email.

"There is not much positioning except playing the blame game. Even a co-leader of the AfD, Meuthen, admitted that Germany has a moral duty to take in those who worked for the German forces in Afghanistan," Schmieding added, referring the Joerg Meuthen, co-leader of the far-right Alternative for Germany.

The party, known in Germany as AfD, has gained momentum in the wake of the refugee crisis of 2015 and entered the German parliament for the first time in 2017.

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The German government has been criticized for taking too long to address the crisis in Afghanistan. Even Merkel admitted there had been "wrong assessments" of the situation.

"Among the parties currently represented in the Bundestag [Germany's parliament], only two could credibly claim limited responsibility for the Afghanistan disaster," Carsten Nickel, deputy director of research at consultancy firm Teneo, said in a note to clients.

He named the Left Party, which voted against military interventions abroad, and the AfD, given its only recent presence in parliament. International troops entered Afghanistan in 2001, in direct response to the Sept. 11 attacks in the U.S.

Anti-immigrant rhetoric

Germany's tone could change ahead of the Germany's federal election on Sept. 26, according to the experts.

Once former Afghan personnel have been received in Germany, "the AfD will likely switch to accusing the political center of risking yet another uncoordinated migration wave, as back in 2015," Nickel said.

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He added that, "in the remaining weeks of the [political] campaign, the AfD might still attempt to criticize the political center for trying to dodge the uncomfortable debate about a potential crisis."

This could spark a change in rhetoric from Germany's ruling Christian Democratic Union party.

Schmieding said concerns about potential refugees could lift support for the AfD, but only "slightly."

The latest polls ahead of the election give the AfD 11% of the vote, compared with 12.6% at the 2017 federal election. The conservative CDU party is seen receiving 25% of the vote, less than in the previous election.

Its leader, and the most likely candidate to replace Merkel, Armin Laschet, has said that European nations should support neighboring countries of Afghanistan in dealing with the high number of refugees, in an effort to avoid a similar crisis to 2015.