That dream of Europe without borders is now Merkel's nightmare
Published 09/01/2016 | 02:30
As German Chancellor Angela Merkel prepared breakfast for her husband Joachim on Thursday morning - as is her wont, according to the little we know about her private life - the world's most powerful woman was surely in reflective and pensive mood.
The furore over the German sex assaults cut to the very heart of one of her most deeply cherished political beliefs that made her the driving force behind Germany's decision to accept 1.1 million refugees last year. All the signs are that this tide of fleeing and despairing humanity will swell even more in 2016; so will the Chancellor hold her nerve, and continue to offer sanctuary to even more of those seeking safety in her homeland?
In the past few days, the full enormity of the assaults which had taken place on New Year's Eve in some of Germany's major cities, had also become clear to Merkel and her inner circle. Bizarrely, what was described as "a mass coordinated attack of sexual intimidation'' in Cologne, carried out by a gang made up of hundreds of males allegedly of Arab or north African appearance, had initially gone largely unreported.
The reason seems to be that police and civil authorities had decided to adopt a "hear no evil, see no evil'' response to the series of assaults near the main railway station. It is suggested they were unwilling to risk stirring up dormant ethnic and racial tensions in other key German population centres.
Witnesses said police allowed hundreds of drunken and threatening young males gather in large groups - women in the area were then subjected to various forms of sexual intimidation and assault and there were also reports of a rape.
It was undoubtedly a jolting wake-up call for Merkel (inset) and her open-door approach to the refugee question. It was also a stark reminder that the integration of large numbers of Muslim immigrants remains an ongoing challenge for Germany and a number of other countries, including France.
One of her right-wing opponents charged that the New Year's Eve violence "was the first result of a dangerous mix of uncontrolled immigration, inexcusable failure of government, and political interference".
"The sex mob rages in our cities,'' screamed a headline in the top-selling daily newspaper 'Bild'. It reported that similar assaults had taken place on the same night in Hamburg and Stuttgart.
Other sections of the media claimed parts of some German cities are effectively under the control of immigrant gangs, and that this is known to the authorities. In Dusseldorf, one gang -half of whom are from Morocco, and who are long time German residents - has over 2,000 members.
By the time Ms Merkel had finished her coffee and toast, she would have realised immigration and the refugee issue may develop into her biggest challenge in 2016.
And it will also be high up the agenda across the continent. Even here in Ireland, an issue which is on the periphery of our consciousness could come into the mainstream if pressure mounts to accept a substantially increased quota of refugees over the next few years.
On the European mainland, it is clear that in recent days what has been dubbed a "tit-for-tat'' approach has escalated between countries previously operating an open-borders policy.
The normally tolerant Danes have threatened travel companies with a plethora of fines if they bring undocumented migrants into the country. The government warns the situation will be monitored "hour by hour''. And the even more benign Swedes are beginning to batten down the hatches, following the acceptance of 115,000 migrants in the final four months of last year.
On the other hand, increasing instability in the Middle East, with ordinary life no longer functioning for millions of people in Syria and Iraq, means the desperate boat run to the European mainland will continue.
Images such as the plight of whole families risking their lives in barely seaworthy and overcrowded craft, and the haunting image of dead children on shorelines, continue to stir the conscience of mainstream Europe. However, the response is undoubtedly complicated by the reality the refugees are overwhelmingly Muslim. The events in Cologne - coming so soon after the Paris gun attacks - will inevitably aggravate further dormant Islamophobia across the continent.
Radicalised Islam, fuelled by the growth of Isil in Syria, coupled with the fallout from an increasingly unstable Middle East, is further stoking the fires of sectarian division. The divide between Islam and mainstream Western culture, as reflected over controversies such as the wearing of the hijab and the burqa in French schools, continues to fuel passions and all too often hatred among extremists on both sides.
The evolution of Western philosophical thought over the centuries, forged by events such as the Enlightenment, has increased the divide on attitudes to women, the rule of law, crime and punishment, and even the concept of parliamentary democracy.
A case in point is Saudi Arabia, which despite the billions in revenue earned from its vast oil wealth, remains a theocratic and grossly intolerant society. Meanwhile, there is ongoing speculation the country is secretly exporting its own brand of religious extremism, fuelling even more instability in the Arab world.
Of course, it should be stressed that millions of Muslims in a host of European countries happily co-exist with those of other religions, while avoiding all forms of extremism.
However, despite all the residual strengths of famed German efficiency, the absorption of over one million people of a different culture, religion and language is testing the resolve of all concerned.
In Ireland, despite various problems with the Troika during the bailout days, we still like to think of ourselves as "good Europeans''. But bearing in mind we have had our own enduring problems settling and integrating members of the Travelling community, further challenges on the refugee front will really test our mettle. Meanwhile, that dream of a Europe without borders slowly dies.