Every week, a selection of leading experts answer a new question from Judy Dempsey on the foreign and security policy challenges shaping Europe’s role in the world.
As someone who’s lived through the Merkel years as both an analyst and a voting citizen, in Germany as well as abroad, it is hard to see her stumble over anything. (I refrain from using the word “survive” in the context of refugees who risk their lives to get to Europe.) She has well deserved the half-ironic nickname Iron Chancellor, as it was not steadfastness and direct power but an ability to change tack and thwart her rivals that secured her ten-year rule.
It is hard to see #Merkel stumble over anything.Tweet This
Yet this time is different, for two reasons. First, and most importantly, the impact of the refugee crisis is tangible for nearly every German citizen, eliciting much stronger reactions than, say, her policy toward the eurozone crisis. Therefore, resistance within her own party, especially at the local and regional levels, is much more threatening than the cabals of her competitors ever were. Second, she has, for the first time, truly committed to an issue. Her resolute position amounts to a metaphorical “here I stand; I can do no other” of Lutheran qualities that has won her praise from erstwhile opponents.
Can she fail? Of course she can. But this would mean that Germany as a whole has failed to tackle the reunified country’s greatest challenge.
The short answer is: time will show. The long answer is: hyperbole aside, the refugee crisis is most likely the make-or-break issue defining Angela Merkel’s chancellorship. Alas, since the moment she decided to put herself and Germany ahead of the curve, she seems to be increasingly at odds with parts of her own party while embracing an agenda shared more by the Left.
There is no visible replacement for #Merkel as leader.Tweet This
In the short run, much will depend on whether the numbers of incoming refugees can be reduced. This works only in cooperation with partners inside and outside the EU, especially Turkey. But it is not impossible. If the numbers decrease and the division of labor among German authorities on the federal, regional, and local levels and NGOs can be improved, there is a chance that she can regain lost territory among voters. Otherwise, populists are set to gain.
Opposition to Merkel is split between a seriously worried conservative wing of her party and an openly xenophobic set of extremists, which makes things a bit easier for her. Moreover, whatever happens, there is no visible replacement for her as leader of either her party or the country, so her chances still look good for the 2017 parliamentary election, possibly in a changed coalition.
Angela Merkel can survive the refugee crisis. But will she?
The key will be to stem the flow of refugees. Germany can handle the million-plus refugees coming this year, but if the chancellor fails find a broader answer soon, she will be in trouble. The problem is that any solution depends on three actors and factors beyond Merkel’s control: the rest of the EU, Turkey, and the global economy.
So far, there’s little sign other EU countries are willing to take more than a token number of refugees to help reduce the burden on Germany. After all the talk of Germany as Europe’s reluctant hegemon in recent years, Berlin’s failure to push its agenda on refugees is a reminder that the country’s main influence is economic.
The second challenge is Turkey. As Merkel showed on October 18, she is willing to go to great lengths to woo Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The question is whether he will deliver what he’s promised, namely to prevent refugees from streaming over Turkey’s borders into the EU and to improve conditions for them.
#Merkel will need to show some tangible progress soon.Tweet This
The third big, if less discussed, pitfall for Merkel is the economy. The slowdown in China and other emerging markets is bound to take a toll on German exporters. German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble has already warned that the extra cost of taking care of the refugees could jeopardize Germany’s balanced budget. An economic downturn would put even more strain on Berlin’s finances.
The recent right-wing backlash in Germany around the anti-Islam Pegida movement and the Euroskeptic Alternative for Germany could play in Merkel’s favor. The vast majority of Germans find such sentiments abhorrent and will stick with her. Still, Merkel will need to show some tangible progress soon. Waiting for the crisis to peter out—her preferred strategy—won’t work this time.
Angela Merkel’s problems stem not from the refugee crisis but from the fact that she is running out of time. There is an iron rule in democratic politics that once a leader, no matter how dominant, goes past ten years in power, it all starts to go wrong.
#Merkel's problems stem from the fact she is running out of time.Tweet This
Look at Britain’s Margaret Thatcher, France’s Charles de Gaulle or François Mitterrand, Spain’s Felipe González, or, indeed, Angela Merkel’s political godfather, Helmut Kohl. After a decade at the top, they seemed invincible and irreplaceable, and then pop! Something happened that no one foresaw. Quickly, authority, prestige, and power evaporated.
The refugee crisis has allowed nice Mrs. Merkel to emerge after nasty Mrs. Merkel imposed draconian austerity measures on Greeks. After that, for many people the Berlin-Brussels axis turned into a case of German bullies punishing ordinary Greeks for the failures of their politicians, many of whom are allied in the center-right European People’s Party to Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union.
But generous idealism in politics has to be tempered by realism. For many Germans and others elsewhere in Europe, Merkel’s offer and then de facto order to Brussels to open borders to a million or more Middle Eastern Muslims went too far.
The trick in politics is to get out at the top. By repeating Thatcher’s error of going on and on and on, Merkel may regret not knowing how to quit while she was ahead. And her handling of the refugee crisis, while well intentioned, will be seen as the moment when it all began to go wrong.
Yes, she can—and she will.
Those who predict Angela Merkel’s downfall make two arguments. First, they claim that the German chancellor has been uncharacteristically bold during the refugee crisis, setting herself up for failure. However, Merkel’s approach is safely rooted in her usual crisis management strategy—waiting for a public consensus to materialize, weighing her political options, and working on a pragmatic solution.
For example, she has counterbalanced her welcoming stance on the refugees with a proposal for controversial transit zones at German borders. In addition, she is protecting German interests in Ankara and Brussels. This is a realist covering all her bases, not the work of a naive visionary.
#Merkel's unique position remains as yet uncontested.Tweet This
Second, Merkel doomsayers argue that the refugee crisis is threatening her popularity and support from within her Christian Democratic Union party and its Bavarian sister group, the Christian Social Union (CSU). Yet, a drop in her public approval rating still puts Merkel at 54–70 percent, according to recent polls. In line with traditional party tactics, the CSU’s leaders cater to the anxieties of Germany’s more conservative constituencies, while she firmly holds the center ground.
A few rebelling members of parliament are an accepted part of a strategy that aims to cover the entire political spectrum to the right of the center. Merkel’s unique position in German politics remains as yet uncontested, leaving German voters with no alternative but to continue to support her.
The German federal chancellor’s visit to Istanbul on October 18 illustrated the prevailing contradictions between Germany’s and the EU’s domestic objectives, on the one hand, and their foreign policy aims, on the other—as well as their difficult choices between values and interests.
Looking at the economic and demographic fundamentals, Germany has a substantial population deficit and therefore needs additional man power from abroad to fuel its economic dynamism. The gap could in principle be bridged by incoming refugees, provided they are quickly integrated through language training, job requalification, and subsidies for the inception period. Germany can afford this financial burden.
There is, however, strong resistance from part of the German population and from some political parties to the sudden, uncontrolled wave of asylum seekers arriving in Germany. Hence the request on October 18 from the chancellor, together with the European Council, for Turkey’s cooperation—despite the risks linked to Turkey’s current electoral campaign and its sharply degraded rule-of-law architecture.
#Turkey's bargaining game puts #Merkel in a dire situation.Tweet This
In turn, Turkey’s bargaining game puts the chancellor in a dire situation, because Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s requests—to revamp Turkey’s EU accession negotiations and introduce widespread visa liberalization for Turkish citizens—go against the grain of the chancellor’s position. In such a context, the seemingly open stance that the German leader took in Istanbul may well end up in deadlock in Berlin and Brussels and therefore appear “insincere,” as the Turkish president sometimes says.
The chancellor’s high-wire act will succeed only if she has enough backing at home and in Brussels and if Turkey finally decides to implement a genuine cooperation policy—that is, one that includes clamping down on both human traffickers and the movements of jihadists.
No doubt, the refugee crisis is Angela Merkel’s biggest. But it is not all doom and gloom for the German chancellor if she can keep four things under control.
No doubt, the #refugeecrisis is Angela #Merkel's biggest.Tweet This
First of all, Merkel needs to buy time for her domestic crisis management by lowering the pressure of the refugees on Germany’s borders. If this requires an international deal, she has enough influence and resources to pave the way for it.
Second, Merkel must defend her leadership in her Christian Democratic Union (CDU). In this respect, she needs to scuttle any internal party opposition that could prey on her current vulnerability. She can afford a critic like Horst Seehofer in the Christian Social Union, the CDU’s Bavarian sister party; she cannot afford one in her own party.
Third, Merkel must shape the political narrative surrounding the crisis. Here, she has the opportunity to profile herself as a defender of democracy and liberal values in the face of rising right-wing movements. This may happen at the expense of the Social Democratic Party and the Greens, which will be crowded out from one of their traditional domains.
Fourth, Merkel must maintain a strong economy. Germans will be more forgiving of controversial policy if the base works well. Accomplishing this may be difficult considering the bad economic news from China and the Volkswagen emissions scandal. However, Merkel could find a silver lining here: budget spending to assist refugees could work as a booster package and prop up the economy.
It is simply too early to tell. Spin doctors in Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union are pretty sure that any decision about the German chancellor’s future will be made only in 2016, if not later. True, for the first time, some conservatives from the former East Germany and Bavaria have been openly asking her to step down because she does not want to take a harder line on the refugee crisis. And her famously high popularity has slipped for several weeks in a row.
But analysts see at least four reasons that speak against any change in the near future: willpower, timeline, challengers, and political dynamics.
First, Merkel seems determined to fight, and her coalition in the Bundestag has a huge majority until at least the 2017 parliamentary election. That allows rank-and-file members of parliament to take different positions from her own.
Second, the next elections in Germany do not take place until March 2016, in the three states of Baden-Württemberg, Rhineland-Palatinate, and Saxony-Anhalt. Only then can opinion polls be taken seriously, because they might translate into votes. Only then does it become clear if Merkel is an old asset or a new burden for her party. That gives her some time to handle the refugee crisis.
#Merkel faces no real challengers within her party.Tweet This
Third, Merkel faces no real challengers or contesters within her party yet—essential for a successful revolt.
Finally, politics often works in paradoxical ways. It is possible that the right-wing Alternative for Germany party might enter regional parliaments in 2016 and prevent the Social Democrats and Greens from forming coalitions. Merkel could then end up with new regional minister-presidents from her party in Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate (the premier in Saxony-Anhalt is already a Christian Democrat)—and with the sudden image of a winner again.
She has to, and she will. Europe as a whole has failed to perceive the refugee crisis emanating from Syria as a geopolitical event. Instead, Europeans prefer to reduce the crisis to a mundane debate about more or fewer immigrants, spurring goodwill on one side, rabid populism on the other.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel was by far the only leader to appreciate how the human wave is just a symptom of the global war reaching the Mediterranean shores, and she has understood that the European continent has to reach out to Asia, the Western Balkans, the United States, Russia, and even China to stem the surge.
#Merkel never postures as a grande dame of politics.Tweet This
In a despondent European Union and with fractious partners, she was excellent in maneuvering toward the best possible results vis-à-vis Greek debt and migration. Yet Merkel’s miracle—never acknowledged by a partisan press (tabloid or chic does not matter, Europe has endured a season of myopic media)—has been to rein in any possible populist wave in her country. Populism is rampant in the UK, France, Spain, Greece, Italy, and Finland and is creeping in many other countries. A massive populist anti-immigrant movement in Germany due to historical resentment and the present power balance in Europe would have upset any equilibrium, opening up scary scenarios with negative vibes and soon reaching as far as Moscow and Washington.
Merkel never delivers great speeches and never postures as a grande dame of politics; there will be no European Mount Rushmore for her. She was not the Churchill, Monnet, or De Gasperi that Europe wished for, but she towers above her partners and opponents. So yes, she will endure the refugees crisis. But will Europe?
Yes, she can. Germany is definitely facing its most important political and societal challenge since reunification, some even say since the end of the Second World War. The arrival of refugees in numbers that may amount to more than 1 percent of the German population per year is a tough test for German politics, for the budget, for the administration down to the local level, and for citizens.
#Germany is facing its biggest political and societal challenge since 1990.Tweet This
But conditions are currently such that the country’s welcoming approach may indeed work: Germany’s economic situation is stable, unemployment is low, there is margin for budgetary maneuver, and Germany sees a naissance of its civil society, with citizens engaging to help refugees all around the country. Meanwhile, the government and, in particular, the chancellor command huge respect among large parts of society, so that recent losses in opinion polls do not so far threaten Angela Merkel’s capacity to lead politically.
And yet, there are obvious risks. A perceived loss of control of the situation within the country would make Germans very skeptical of Merkel’s liberal approach to the migration crisis. An already highly polarized debate, including within her own political party, could turn against her. A possible terrorist attack ascribed to recently arrived Islamists would create an enormous backlash for the government far beyond migration policy. If these risks materialize, Germany may see a rise of populist and even extremist forces, and the country might become far more inward-looking and less European than it is today.
On top of the challenge of handling the situation domestically, Merkel will need to show European and international leadership on the issue, especially on the efforts to tackle the root causes of the migration crisis. Berlin will have to engage more proactively in European approaches to the Middle East. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier’s trip to the region on October 16–20 may have been a first step in that direction.
As former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher used to say, “there is no alternative” to Angela Merkel. It is due to the German leader’s popularity that her party came within a few seats of gaining a majority in the Bundestag in the 2013 parliamentary election, something no one has accomplished since former chancellor Konrad Adenauer in 1957. With Merkel’s departure, her Christian Democrats would probably fall back to scoring a percentage of the vote in the high thirties.
As Thatcher used to say, there is no alternative to Angela #Merkel.Tweet This
In addition, she has no clear heir apparent. The two most likely successors, Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière and Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen, have their own political weaknesses. Horst Seehofer, the leader of hard-pressed Bavaria, is not a future chancellor, despite his recent rise in the polls.
Finally, the German public remains supportive of the general concept Merkel has championed of openness to refugees. The problem is not xenophobia or racism but simply capacity. Germans hate disorder, and this is now the problem. The tide of refugees is likely to slow during the winter, and Merkel, ever the agile tactician, will make the necessary adjustments to get back in touch with the political mainstream.
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