German Chancellor Angela Merkel has two weeks to reach a deal with her European counterparts about how to admit and register asylum seekers. Failing that, her job could well be on the line.

Judy Dempsey
Dempsey is a nonresident senior fellow at Carnegie Europe and editor in chief of Strategic Europe.
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This small breathing space was gained after a hastily patched-up agreement was reached on June 18 between Merkel and Horst Seehofer, Germany’s interior minister and leader of the Christian Social Union, which is based in Bavaria.

After a blistering dispute inside Merkel’s conservative bloc that pitted the two strongminded personalities against each other, Merkel managed to win some time. She has consistently called for a Europe-wide accord over how to register asylum seekers, something that has eluded the EU for nearly two decades.

Seehofer, whose party is fighting to prevent big losses as the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) gains support ahead of elections in Bavaria in October, has insisted that asylum seekers be stopped at the German border and sent back to the EU country into which they first entered.

Knowing full well that an agreement on asylum will not be possible at next week’s European Council summit, Merkel is instead hoping to clinch bilateral deals with Italy, Greece, and other member states. So much for a Europe-wide deal. But if she can achieve on the bilateral level what she cannot achieve on the EU level, maybe Merkel can sit out her biggest crisis since becoming chancellor in late 2005.

It’s not certain, but two things are. The first is that French President Emmanuel Macron’s ambitious plans for a more integrated Europe, which would include a long-overdue reform of the eurozone, will not be realized. Merkel’s own conservative bloc opposes some of these major changes as do other eurozone countries, including the Netherlands. For some other countries, the refugee issue takes precedence over EU reforms.

Second, U.S. President Donald Trump is intent on undermining Merkel, intent on weakening Europe, and intent on supporting leaders, such as Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who have questioned the basic values upon which the EU was built.

As shown during the recent G7 summit in Canada, Trump is hell-bent on destroying the multilateral order that the United States built with its Western European allies after 1945. Germany in particular and the EU in general have consistently defended this multilateral order. It was these rules-based institutions that kept the transatlantic alliance together and provided the West with a political, economic, and moral compass.

Trump’s protectionist trade policies and his disdain for multilateral accords, such as the Iran nuclear deal, are bad enough. His constant verbal attacks on Merkel are dangerous. Trump may win lots of brownie points from the AfD and from nationalist-conservative leaders such as Orbán for his verbal assaults against the chancellor. 

But behind those verbal attacks is a disquieting agenda in which Germany would descend to the level that Trump wishes: a country that would close its borders; a country that would have its economy weakened by American tariffs on steel, aluminum, and car imports; a country that sees the White House dismantling the multilateral order that Germany has so much depended upon. Taken together, these could spell ruin for Germany—and, implicitly, for the EU. 

That is why Trump’s personal attacks on Merkel are so dangerous. It’s as if he is seeking “regime change” in Berlin. Let’s not imagine what kind of chancellor he would like to see in Berlin.

The G7 debacle should have been enough to push Europe closer together. But their agendas are short term and—with few exceptions, such as Macron’s—are not based on strategic preparedness. The bigger picture rarely gets a look in. That picture is about the future of the multilateral, Western, liberal order and how to defend it.

Britain, France, and Germany are doing their utmost to keep the Iran deal together, while the EU has wide support for upholding the Paris accord on climate change. But institutionally and politically, these efforts pale in comparison with the challenge facing European leaders in reaching a viable agreement over refugees, migrants, and asylum seekers.

Such an agreement cannot be separated from the need for Europe to have a strong defense, security, and foreign policy. They are all linked. If that is not obvious by now, then Trump will have a free hand to further disrupt Europe.