German chancellor describes New Year’s Eve assaults as ‘bombshell’ in heated meeting of her Christian Democratic Union party.
Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, has proposed tougher laws that would make it easier to deport migrants after a wave of sex attacks in Cologne that were allegedly carried out by asylum seekers – an incident she is reported to have described as “a bombshell”.
Merkel is said to have made the remark while speaking to members of her Christian Democrat party (CDU) at its closed-door annual policy meeting in the western city of Mainz on Saturday, sources told Der Spiegel.
The gathering – which was reportedly “very heated” – focused on introducing tougher criminal penalties following the Cologne attacks.
They have also already led to a dismissal, with Wolfgang Albers, the president of Cologne police, forced to leave his post after grave misgivings were expressed about his force’s handling of events.
CDU party members repeatedly insisted that the New Year attacks marked a “sea change” in attitudes to Germany’s open-door policy, which has seen around 1.1 million refugees arrive over the past 12 months.
The meeting quickly evolved into a crisis summit for Merkel, with a number of voices previously in favour of her refugee policy saying they now had doubts. It also discussed the withdrawal of refugee or asylum-seeker status from anyone sentenced to a non-parole prison term.
At the same time, Merkel said that the government had to do more to calm people’s nerves. She is reported to have said that she believed more unrest would follow.
Participants in the meeting said she feared the Cologne perpetrators would not be given tough enough sentences to lead to their deportation. “The people will not understand this. We must have answers to this topic,” she is reported to have said.
The other unanswered question is where the asylum seekers might be deported to: it would be impossible to send someone back to a war zone.
Volker Bouffier, the prime minister of the state of Hesse, told the meeting: “Cologne has changed everything. People are full of doubt.”
Many CDU members reported how unhappy the mood was in their own constituencies, with Arnold Vaatz, the deputy chair of the CDU’s parliamentary faction, saying: “People are speaking about a loss of control.”
Carsten Linnemann, head of the CDU’s Mittelstand association, which represents the medium-sized companies that make up the bulk of the German economy, reported that many of the CDU members he knew were considering leaving the party out of disgust over the refugee policy.
“We need to call a spade a spade,” Linnemann said. “What Cologne demonstrates is that if the stream [of refugees] remains so high, integration will not work.”
But Merkel has so far shown no sign of shifting from her position that Germany must remain open to giving refuge to those in need.
She is said to have emphasised once again in Mainz that she is not for turning on issues such as border closures or upper limits for the numbers that Germany will take. She is still resting her hopes on international solutions, such as help from Turkey, European solidarity and tackling the root causes of the flows of refugees.
She reportedly tried to calm fears by pointing out that refugee numbers to Germany have been falling in recent weeks, saying said that “only 3,000” were currently entering every day, when just a couple of months ago 10,000 was normal.
However, as one source present at the meeting reported to Der Spiegel, Merkel was quick to point out: “I can do the maths. I know that 365 times 3,000 is still too many.”
Among the groups waiting to make political gains from the fallout after Cologne is the anti-immigrant party Alternative für Deutschland. They will be looking to benefit from German voters’ anxiety at regional elections on 13 March.
Frauke Petry, its leader, joined a chorus of voices attacking Merkel, writing on her Facebook page: “Is Germany now open and colourful enough for you, following the wave of crimes and sexual attacks, Frau Merkel?”
A short time later she went so far as to made a direct connection between the events in Cologne and the mass rapes of German women by Red Army soldiers in the spring of 1945. “The mass abuse in Cologne recalls the lawless conditions at the end of the war,” she wrote.
Her party colleague Björn Höcke wrote on his Facebook page: “Merkel is guilty for the attacks of migrant mobs on women in Cologne and other German cities.”
Meanwhile, as part of Operation New Year, a 100-strong team of police officers continue to investigate the identity of the perpetrators, including poring over 350 hours of video footage and questioning people at a refugee centre where mobile phones stolen on the night of the attacks are believe to have been located.
Around 18 asylum seekers are among 31 people suspected of theft and violence, but not of sexual assault, according to the police.
Among the suspects are nine Algerians, eight Moroccans, four Syrians, five Iranians, two Germans and an Iraqi, a Serb and an American.
Twenty-one people are being investigated in connection with the sexual assaults. It is not known whether asylum seekers are among them.
So far 170 criminal complaints have been received, of which 117 involve sexual assault, including two allegations of rape.