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Berlin Attack Sparks Debate Over German Refugee Policy

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

We're going to take a look now at the political reaction to the attack on the Berlin Christmas market. There is a tense debate in Germany over admitting migrants and refugees from countries like Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. And while much about the attacker is still unknown, Chancellor Angela Merkel said today that it would be particularly difficult for Germans to bear if it turns out that the perpetrator was among those refugees.

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ANGELA MERKEL: (Speaking German).

SIEGEL: "It would be especially repugnant to the many, many Germans who are committed to helping refugees every day," Merkel said, "and to the many people who actually need our help and who are trying to integrate into our country."

We're going to hear now from Stefan Kornelius. He's with the newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung. He joins us via Skype from Munich. Welcome to the program.

STEFAN KORNELIUS: Thank you.

SIEGEL: What do you make of Angela Merkel coming out so quickly well before ISIS claimed responsibility, say, (unintelligible) to the issue of refugees?

KORNELIUS: Well, Angela Merkel was trying to preempt the debate, which she certainly did. But she will be framed now by this shadow which basically blames her for inviting those people to Germany and, by inviting them, bringing in danger and threats to the German public. Even though this argument is extremely short-cut and wrong if you ask me, it sticks. And it frames the campaign which actually starts next year, the campaign for federal elections. And so Angela Merkel is out to fight for her reelection.

SIEGEL: What have been some other reactions to this attack in Berlin from German politicians?

KORNELIUS: Quite honestly, most reactions were calm and considerate. There was no blaming going on apart from two camps, and those are the right-wing populist camps, first of all - the newly founded and now very strong AfD party, which is trying to make its way into the federal parliament next year.

And the second one is a sister party of Angela Merkel's Conservative Party, the Bavarian CSU. And the prime minister and party chairman of that party, Horst Seehofer, is a very staunch critique of Merkel. And he's trying to bypass her on the right.

SIEGEL: You also mentioned the AfD, the Alternative for Germany party - farther right. I gather that one politician from that group tweeted today about Merkel's dead, blaming the victims of the Berlin attack on the chancellor.

KORNELIUS: That will be their line of argument for the next months to come. This is an argument which probably goes down with let's say 12 to 16 percent of the German electorate. This is what they want to achieve in federal elections next year. And Merkel's plan actually to avoid this entire debate, to leave the refugee issue behind her and point to larger issues around - the threats from Russia, the uncertainty in the world, the new change in the American government, the Syrian crisis - this will all probably fold now, and Germany turns back inwardly into this nasty debate on how many migrants can the country actually sustain.

SIEGEL: When you speak of as big as 16 percent of the electorate favoring the kind of policies of the alternative party, does that mean that for a sizeable chunk of the German population, nationalism, nativism are OK now?

KORNELIUS: Well, Germany is not immune against this kind of thinking and the tendency. So definitely populism is on the rise in Germany. The beauty of Germany is that the system is very strong and not immune, but it can fend off most of its populism. So the party system cannot be taken over by one populist leader alone.

The political system is fabricated in a way that you have to form coalitions, and those coalitions have to be mostly led by moderate people. So I think the German system is very strong and can endure that kind of populism.

SIEGEL: Stefan Kornelius of the German newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung, thanks for talking with us today.

KORNELIUS: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.