Cologne assaults reverberate across Europe

Placard at the Cologne train station reads "The sex mob scandal has a background." [Reuters]

The attacks carried out against women, in Cologne on New Year’s Eve, are still reverberating across Europe, auguring for more resentment against immigrants, and eroding the remnants of multicultural attitudes. The EURACTIV network reports.

The events that unfolded in front of Cologne train station, and in other cities on New Year’s Eve, are still not fully clear, but at least one thing is certain: they called into question Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open door policy vis-à-vis refugees from conflict zones.

Also, fears are growing that the New Year’s eve assaults are a new form of terrorism, and that they had been planned and coordinated by terror groups in the Middle East, including ISIS. This may in fact have been the dramatic assault that German intelligence feared would take place in Munich, at the end of 2015.

>>Read: German minister hints sexual assaults were planned

Extremists in Germany used violence to respond to violence, some fringe groups indiscriminately attacking people with a foreign complexion and organising manhunts. On Monday night, some 200-plus far-right extremists were arrested after anti-immigrant riots in the former eastern city of Leipzig.

For their part, the German authorities have been exploring ways to tighten the asylum law and making punishable by expulsion offences of the kind perpetrated on New Year’s Eve. Up to now, expulsion was envisaged in cases of a prison sentence of three years, or more.

>>Read: Deportation mooted for Cologne sexual attackers

Similar cases in Austria

Austria was another country where assaults similar to those in Cologne were perpetrated.

Numerous complaints were made to the Austrian police regarding harassment that was carried out in Vienna and Salzburg on the same night, by male immigrants, although, to a lesser extent than what was seen in Germany. In the wake of the attacks, the debate regarding a clash of cultures, traditions and moral and legal standards has reemerged and intensified. 

More voices are heard about tightening the asylum law and punishments regarding sexual offences, as well for the living conditions of refugees to be tightened and to be made less attractive.

The Minister of the Interior, Johanna Mikl-Leitner (ÖVP, EPP-affiliated), reiterated the police’s hard stance on the matter.

“Limits have to be set. For me, as a woman, it goes without saying that not a single millimetre should be surrendered in our freedom to move around in public. To do so would be a capitulation that we must, and will not, allow,” Mikl-Leitner said.

Asylum seekers that flout these standards should, therefore, feel the full force of the law and be deported. The combative minister said that this could happen, but, reminded that people could not be sent back to warzones.

“Therefore, it is important that we proceed with the full force of the law and reduce the attractiveness of our country. In this way, only those who can integrate properly and quickly will come to us,” she said.

France focused on ‘classical’ terrorism

In France, a country still recovering following the 13 November Paris attacks, the question of sexual assaults by migrants in Germany hasn’t been much commented on at the government level.

However, the largest opposition party, Les Républicains (LR), said they were worried by the Cologne assaults, asking for more light to be shed on the events which unfolded also in Hamburg and other cities.

“French people are worried. It’s one of the first topics on social media,” Valerie Debord, an LR spokesperson, emphasised.

“We wish to testify our solidarity to the victims, because Germany is Europe, and this is our common land,” she added.

In France, a debate is ongoing on a scheme that would deprive terrorists from their French nationality if they have joint citizenship with another country, and most ministers or MP’s comments focus on that issue.

>>Read: Plans to strip terror suspects of their nationality rock French politics

The number of refugees coming to France is very low compared to the million people who arrived in Germany in 2015, or even Sweden. For example, 26,000 unaccompanied children have reached Sweden without their parents since last August. In comparison, the number of refugees who reached France in the past year was estimated at 24,000.

>>Read: 26,000 unaccompanied children flock to Sweden over last 4 months

Marine Le Pen, MEP and head of the National Front, is the only politician having expressed a concern over the Cologne attacks, with a short and rather (for her) gentle message on Twitter.

“Fright after assaults in Koln: dignity and freedom of women are a precious asset and we need to protect that”.

The National Front also stated later that the most recent terrorist event in Paris, implying the attack of a police station by a lone assailant on 7 January, showed the failures of Schengen. German newspapers said the attacker came from Cologne. The French police did not confirm that.

Polish right-wing press delighted

In Poland, a country in conflict with Brussels over the new media law giving the conservative government control of state media, the Cologne assaults gave the right-wing press the chance to slam Germany, seen as a promoter of EU values. Polish society is divided between the pro-EU supporters of the former government, and the populist and Eurosceptic forces currently in power.

>>Read: Poles protest media law, wave EU flag

The right-wing press used the disgraceful events in Germany to harden its anti-immigrant attitude. Many articles criticise not only the immigrants, but also the German government’s decision to open the country’s doors to the refugees.

The right-wing press has a huge influence on Polish social media – many memes that are offensive towards immigrants circulate in rightwing parts of the Polish Internet.

The Polish right and its media promulgate a traditional sex-roles model which in this case lead to an accusation that German men did not care enough for women.

In contrast, the leading centre-left daily, Gazeta Wyborcza, has published more than 40 articles (in print and online) about the sexual assaults in Germany. Most of them simply describe the events, the progress in the investigation and the world’s reactions to it without any editorial comments or a discussion of the event in relation to the refugee situation in Europe.

Sociologists and other scholars stayed away from populist attitudes. One of the most prominent and well-known Polish feminists and political activists, Professor Magdalena ?roda, said that it was important to see which individuals are the perpetrators of the assaults, and that their ancestry should be of secondary consideration.

Italy changes legislative plans

In Italy, the government blocked the plan to abolish the “crime of illegal immigration”, introduced in 2009 by the fourth Berlusconi government.

According to experts, defining illegal immigration as a felony is useless, not only because migrants are not likely to be able to pay the fine, but also because it is harmful to the investigation and unconstitutional, since it punishes status, not conduct.

The government was ready to abolish the crime of illegal immigration by the end of January, also in order to facilitate the expulsion of those who have no right to remain in Italy.

After the Cologne events, however, Interior Minister Angelino Alfano declared that at this time, public opinion was not ready to face the security issue. Therefore, the decision was postponed. Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni said the Cologne assaults were another opportunity to seek a European response to immigration.

“The European Union has launched a common immigration policy, on the initial thrust of Italy, but for now only on paper. You cannot control massive flows of people such as the current ones without a shared EU effort,” he said.

Slovak PM feels vindicated

Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico has already been in the international news, for opposing relocation schemes, and by saying that his cabinet sees a direct link between the current migration flows, the November attacks in Paris, and the Cologne assaults.

>>Read: Slovakia takes EU to court over migrant quotas

>> Read: Slovak PM: ‘It’s impossible to integrate Muslims’

General elections in Slovakia will be held on 5 March. Fico’s governing party scores high in approval rates, at around 40%, and its support has increased since the start of the refugee crisis. One of the main campaign messages of SMER-SD is “We Protect Slovakia”. The only point of interest in the elections is whether Smer-SD would need a coalition partner or whether it will again be able to form a government alone.

On 8 January, Fico held yet another press conference on migration issues, speaking again about the direct link between Paris, the Cologne attacks and the current migration crisis. He called for an extraordinary EU summit to speed up the establishment of a European border and coast guard. Citing UN predictions that there could be up to three million migrants heading to the EU this year, he said it would be too late to have the border guard in place in the autumn, when “another two million migrants could reach Europe”.

Prague in tune with Bratislava

The assaults definitely influenced the debate about migration in the Czech Republic. Some politicians condemned the attacks, while others considered them as confirmation of the theory that Muslims cannot be integrated into broader society, and praised Fico for not allowing Muslims in Slovakia. Leaders of xenophobic movements went even further, and organised an anti-Islam event.

Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka (Social Democrat, ?SSD) called for increased protection of EU borders.

“The Czech Republic is ready to support all steps that lead to the urgent establishment of a European Border and Coast Guard, including a possible extraordinary meeting of the European Council,” he said, a call very much in tune with the Slovak premier. The two countries coordinate positons in the so-called Visegrad group, in which Poland and Hungary also participate.

“It is also very important to consider whether Turkey fulfills the promises it made in the regulation of migration,” Sobotka added.

European Commission First Vice-President Frans Timmermans said on 7 January that the EU is far from satisfied with Turkey’s cooperation in stemming the flow of migrants to Europe after a deal clinched late last year.

>> Read: EU ‘long way from satisfied’ with Turkish migrant cooperation

The Czech PM is persuaded that the recent events in Germany show “how important the security and integration aspect of the solution to the migration crisis is”. The migrants should respect the laws and rules of the country where they ask for asylum. “Those who do not appreciate the help offered, break the rules or even commit crimes should be automatically expelled from the EU,” the premier said.

“The process of incoming migrants has to be transparent. We should be able to guarantee the safety, full integration of the migrants and full respect of our rules,” the Minister of Foreign Affairs Lubomír Zaorálek (?SSD) said after the meeting with EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini who visited the Czech Republic on 11 January.

Confusion in Romanian debate

Meanwhile, the Cologne attacks have not helped the migration debate in Romania. The public space was almost immediately flooded with different versions regarding the incidents that fuelled diverse arguments. ”A new dimension of crime,” ”the police has attempted to hide the acts and origins of the perpetrators”, or ”the press has tried to cover up the story for the sake of political correctness” are but a few of the themes of the discussions currently taking place in Romania.

In the meantime, as some of the confusion surrounding the attacks has been cleared up, the logic of these arguments has diminished, but their effects remain. The general atmosphere is worse than in 2015, and more people are now wondering whether accepting migrants and integrating them is a possibility.

Bulgarian journalist creates buzz

Similar to Romania, in neighbouring Bulgaria, the New Year’s Eve attacks in Germany have unleashed a flurry of publications, many of them focusing on the migrants as possible perpetrators of a new type of terrorism acts, possibly commissioned by the Islamic State. Many of the commentaries published were translations from the German press.

One local opinion though made the biggest waves was made by Toma Tomov, a veteran TV journalist, who was the guest of bTV public television on 7 January.

Tomov said the cultural differences were not taken into account when Merkel invited the refugees to Germany. He asked: “When the authorities in Berlin invited 1 million people, didn’t they know that those 20-years-old guys have penises?”

The journalist said that Europe is a neighbour to “a frightening world which is just at two hours flight distance from us”, and that the chaos in this world would last not 10, not 20 and not even 30 years.

“This world is very complex and we need to find a way to accommodate with it. We cannot win them over”, he said.

“The Americans accepted only 1,900 Syrian refugees. When you accept one million, you have to accept them as they are. There is no way you can change them. The illusion of multiculturalism, that they would become like us, is naïve. They will not. They will be what they are”, said Tomov.

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