Adieu Pragmatismus? Merkel, Multiculturalism and the CDU

By Phil Triadafilopoulos

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s declaration of multiculturalism’s “utter failure” this past October provoked a wave of media attention the world over.  Conservative columnists in Canada and elsewhere greeted Merkel’s comments with glee, arguing that finally a leader of stature had screwed up the guts to say openly what many have long believed to be true.  Leaders of extreme right-wing parties, such as the Dutch People’s Party’s Geert Wilders, similarly cheered the Chancellor on, leaving proponents of multiculturalism befuddled and defensive.

For students of German politics, Merkel’s message was anything but news; indeed, it was oddly redundant: multiculturalism has been dead and buried in Germany for years.  Not even its staunchest defenders, the Greens, had much to say in its favour of late.  Why then did the Chancellor add her voice to a long settled debate?

Divining an answer requires peering into the complicated internal politics of the Chancellor’s political party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU).  Merkel’s speech signals an important shift on her part, away from the CDU’s “pragmatic” wing and toward conservative power brokers, like Bavaria’s Minister President Horst Seehofer.  While the former holds that the CDU’s long-term interests lie in recognizing changing circumstances and reaching out to ethnic voters, the latter remain uncomfortable with the idea that Germany is a more diverse country.  Moreover, immigration remains a useful wedge issue for mobilizing conservative voters.

The pragmatists’ approach to immigration never veered into multiculturalism.  Rather, during the CDU’s Grand Coalition government with the SPD (2005-2009), moderates pushed for a long overdue acknowledgment of Germany’s transformation into an “immigration country.”  This embrace of reality was accompanied by substantive policy measures, including a push for “integration” that included courses stressing German language learning and civic essentials.  Other innovations included a rationalized system of citizenship testing and efforts to better integrate Muslim believers into Germany’s elaborate system of church-state relations.  The latter project, initiated by former Interior Minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, was a noteworthy achievement in a period marred by anti-Muslim hysteria across Western Europe.

The CDU’s lackluster results in the 2009 federal election and Schäuble’s difficulties as Finance Minister weakened the party’s pragmatist wing, creating an opening that conservatives used to reassert their positions on a range of issues, including immigration and integration.  Given this shift in the party’s centre of gravity, Merkel’s remarks could be read as evidence that she is keen to reposition herself within the party to avoid renewed challenges to her leadership from the Right (which has never embraced her).

Whether Merkel’s multiculturalism speech marks a definitive retreat from the integration initiatives she supported as leader of the Grand Coalition remains to be seen.  The federal cabinet which she currently leads has unveiled a new set of immigration measures, which, paradoxically, include provisions for attracting more highly skilled professionals to meet the demands of employers – another core element in the CDU’s base of support.

It's hard to see why well educated, skilled immigrants would opt for Germany over other destinations given the Chancellor's recent statements and the populist tone of German politics of late  While an official embrace of multiculturalism may not be in every country’s interests, Canada’s success in attracting talented immigrants to grow its “creative class” demonstrates that promoting an immigrant friendly national brand can pay dividends.  Beyond that, integration is more likely to succeed where immigrants are not treated as pawns in partisan political contests. 

Pragmatists in the CDU might take a page from Canada’s federal Conservative Party, which set aside the populist anti-multiculturalism of the old Reform movement in an effort to maintain Canada’s place in the global race for talent and improve the party’s ties with new Canadians, whose support is key to winning seats in the increasingly diverse suburbs ringing Toronto and Vancouver.  If nothing else, the Canadian case serves as a reminder to moderate conservatives like Chancellor Merkel that they have alternatives to a tired anti-multiculturalism that sours prospective immigrants and, ultimately, discourages integration.


Phil Triadafilopoulos is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto Scarborough and the School of Public Policy and Governance.  His book, Becoming Multicultural: Immigration and the Transformation of Citizenship in Canada and Germany, will be published by UBC Press in 2011.