They came dressed defiantly in mini-skirts and micro-shorts despite the rain and freezing winds, but for thousands of young women taking to the streets of Cologne for the city’s annual carnival season there was no escaping a new sense of trepidation.
Antoine Even, a 20-year-old business student, joined the bedraggled legions of dogs and Darth Vaders, crocodiles and cowboys, bumble-bees and bunny rabbits, but just a month after the Cologne sex attacks, she could not completely forget her concerns.
“We have our pepper sprays,” said Ms Even, patting the bum-bag around her waist. “Our parents didn’t really want us to come and they warned us to be very careful, but we decided that we’re not going to be afraid, we’re going to party – otherwise they just win.”
Aided by copious quantities of beer and bratwurst, it would be wrong to say that the carnival spirit had died this year in one of Germany’s most progressive cities, but equally it was true that for many people, despite all the gaiety, something felt different.
Perhaps it was the overwhelming police presence watching over the revellers as they went slip-sliding, arm-in-arm along the cobbled streets around Cologne’s famous cathedral, the most visible reminder of the assaults and robberies against scores of women at the New Year’s Eve celebration.
‘People are scared’
That, and the threat of terrorism after the Paris attacks – deepened by the arrests of three Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) suspects on the morning of the Carnival opening, including two in a town just 50 miles from Cologne – combined to provide an unavoidably tense backdrop to this year’s event.
“A lot of people are afraid, but we are doing everything we can to make them feel safe and confident in the security,” said Wolfgang Baldes, senior spokesman for the Cologne police, confirming that police numbers had doubled from last year to 2,000 officers, many in riot gear.
“Cologne is an open-minded city,” he added, “and we are also trying to protect that – we need to make people feel safe again.”
Before the event, police distributed flyers on social etiquette at the carnival, explaining the innocent practice of “Butzen” where carnival-goers plant kisses on fellow-revellers cheeks, and explaining “women and men must always consent to the ‘butzen’. No means no!”
After the opening night police reported 190 arrests, including 22 sexual assaults in a crowd that was overwhelmingly white – there were no reports of gangs operating, although a Belgian TV reporter said she was groped on-air by a man of European appearance who grabbed her breast.
But after a grim year both for Europe and Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, there was inevitably talk of politics at the beer-stalls in a week when the need to deal afresh with the refugee crisis saw the German leader’s personal poll-ratings hit a five-year low.
After Mrs Merkel so publicly threw open the gates last autumn, Germany has accepted more than a million migrants – many undocumented – straining public services and leading to fierce criticism of Germany’s leader for failing to manage the flow better.
Despite the sex attacks, many of the revellers in Cologne – one of Germany’s most progressive and multi-cultural cities – still voiced in-principle support for Germany taking refugees, but with important new caveats that point to the urgent need for Mrs Merkel to take control of the problem.
“Germany must help these people, but we must do more to integrate them,” said Katrin Burkatzki, a 53-year-old web designer, who said that the Merkel-government’s decision to toughen its asylum policy after its initial open-arms welcome was a necessary shift to stop Germany lurching to the Right.
‘Europe has changed’
Since the national mood soured on refugees, Mrs Merkel has responded by pressing for new laws to make it easier to deport criminals and economic migrants and harder for refugees to bring their families, as well as limiting the attraction of Germany’s welfare system by offering vouchers, not cash.
“Europe has changed this year. This is a dangerous time,” said Mrs Burkatzki, noting the rise of the far-Right Alternative for Germany (AFD) party which now topped 12 per cent in the polls. “The politicians have to act to take away their arguments or the AFD will just get bigger.”
On the streets, Mrs Merkel attracted her fair share of criticism, but her personal position is shored up by the lack of an obvious challenger in her own party and the sense that her political opponents on the centre-Left are not obviously better-equipped to deal with the challenges.
Still, patience can be heard wearing thin, even in liberal Cologne where the people are proud to contrast their open-mindedness with what one carnival-goer called the “bitter Bavarians” who have borne the brunt of the influx and been most critical of Mrs Merkel.
Photo: Eddie Mulholland/The Telegraph
“There are too many, just too many people coming so we have to set limits,” said Walter Husges, a retired man out with his wife, Vera, who have lived in Cologne all their lives.
“We have to find better ways of controlling the numbers.”
Despite the sex attacks, it was much harder to find a young person prepared to condemn Mrs Merkel’s expansive refugee policy, with many citing Germany’s “historic responsibilities” that they learn about in school, and their own experience growing up in multi-cultural Germany.
Peter Alringhaus, a 20-year-old student was out dressed as Kamal Ataturk (his girlfriend is Turkish) with his best friend David Pogorzelski, the son of Polish immigrants who moved to Germany 25 years ago. Both were still idealistically adamant that being German was not a question of DNA, but a mindset.
“Germany has a long history of refugees, and when Jews fled this country because of Hitler and war, other countries took them in,” said Mr Alringhaus, “Now Germany must do the same; we have a responsibility even if it is hard.”
Germans support Merkel – to an extent
Germans also recognise that Mrs Merkel is not entirely to blame for the messand are angry at the refusal of other European countries – including Britain – to help share the burden, according to 52-year-old Helen Hofmann, a university administrator who joined the parade.
“The refugee crisis is not Angela Merkel’s fault. She is under pressure, yes, but most Germans are not against refugees and want a constructive solution. But we need our European partners and it is the egotisms of some national governments which make Europe very vulnerable at present,” she said.
It is the prevalence of such beliefs that have protected Mrs Merkel thus far – polls show her coalition would still win a majority if elections were held tomorrow – but most analysts agree time is running short. If 2016 brings another million migrants, it is not clear Mrs Merkel could weather the storm.
Her difficulty, says Mujtaba Rahman, head of Europe practice at the Eurasia Group, a leading risk consultancy, is that the problem fueling the refugee crisis is external – a war raging in Syria – and unlike the euro crisis, that cannot be fixed by German fiscal firepower.
Refugee crisis affects everyone – and everything
And unlike the euro crisis, the refugee crisis is not abstract, but being felt in the streets, neighbourhoods and schools all across Germany.
A German-backed €3 billion (£2.3 billion) deal with Turkey to slow the flow of migrants shows little sign of being effective, with European leaders now talking openly of the need to seal the Greek border with Macedonia.
If Mrs Merkel has failed to get numbers under control when the summer season starts up again in a few months’ time, the German chancellor will find herself caught on the horns of a very nasty dilemma, warns Mr Rahman.
Either she must impose a ceiling on migration to Germany, which would spell the end of Schengen or move to bottle the problem up in Greece by backing a plan close the Macedonian border – a move that could itself destabilise Greece and increase the chances of a ‘Grexit’ – a Greek exit from the euro.
“Migration is the key piece in the European puzzle that is already cracking around the edges,” said Mr Rahman, “it’s not only the refugee crisis, but also the risk to Schengen, a ‘Grexit’ and perhaps even a ‘Brexit’.
“Those risks all coming together is the apocalyptic scenario – but it is no longer a totally unrealistic one either.”