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The migrant crisis threatens to topple Merkel

Published in Business Spectator (Melbourne), 22 October 2015

merkelAngela Merkel has been Germany’s Chancellor for 10 years, but this is the first time that she is facing serious challenges. Merkel may have survived the euro crisis without a dent in her popularity but Europe’s refugee crisis is leading observers to a hitherto unthinkable question: what if Merkel stumbles over the uncontrolled influx of migrants into her country?

There are problems for Merkel on two fronts. Domestically, her long reign in the opinion polls is drawing to a close as people realise the consequences of her open borders policy. There are now between 5000 and 10,000 migrants arriving in Germany every day. Meanwhile internationally, Merkel faces a double confrontation. On the one hand, EU partners are furious with Germany’s unilateralism. On the other, she now has to beg Turkey for help in containing the flow of Syrian refugees.

It is not the first time that Merkel has burdened Germany with the results of her policies. Her decision to switch off nuclear power stations cost energy consumers dearly. Her guarantees for other eurozone countries will haunt German taxpayers for generations.

The difference between these events and the refugee crisis is the latter’s greater visibility and its immediate effect. Across Germany, students can no longer attend their sports classes because their school gyms have been converted into makeshift asylum seeker homes. There are reports about increased crime rates in places with refugees. Above all, there are no credible plans to regain control over Germany’s borders.

All of the above have led to a development which, at least by Merkel’s standards, must count as a revolt. Her own party members are openly defying her leadership.

A couple of weeks ago, almost three dozen mid-ranking functionaries of her own party wrote a letter to their Chancellor to protest against her policies, calling them incompatible with their party’s principles. Merkel then faced her parliamentary caucus where, according to media reports, about a fifth of MPs were critical of her stance on refugees. Her party’s youth organisation also distanced itself from their leader, and at a party gathering in Saxony there were even voices calling for her resignation while she was present.

For the supposedly most powerful woman in global politics, these events must have been a new experience. She is no longer beyond criticism, even though her personal popularity used to secure her party good election results in the past.

But Merkel’s popularity is eroding, with direct consequences for her party’s fortunes. One poll revealed that a third of voters even called for Merkel’s resignation over the refugee crisis. Another showed that her party’s share of the vote had fallen to only 37 per cent, the lowest level in two years, and five percentage points lower than only a couple of months ago.

Suddenly, a new word has entered political discussions in Germany: Merkeldämmerung, a pun on Richard Wagner’s Götterdämmerung (‘the twilight of the gods’). And indeed the Germans are increasingly realising that Merkel is a goddess that failed. Maybe she never even was one.

For years, Merkel drew her political capital from a very simple positioning. By being boring and unexciting, she portrayed a sense of security. The Germans felt safe in her hands, almost irrespective of what she did (or failed to do). But it is hard to feel safe when the country is flooded by more than a million of people in a year and all the head of government has to offer is the slogan “We’ll manage”.

As I have often argued in this column, the public’s trust in Merkel’s abilities, let alone achievements, had always been misplaced. She did not achieve half as much as people were willing to give her credit for. However, she was a master of political strategy and communication.

In the current refugee crisis, Merkel again tried to get away with spin and calculation but this time her plan has backfired. Her signal to open Germany’s borders to an unlimited number of migrants was strong, and no matter how much she tries to take it back, she is unable to stem the flow of people into Germany.

Her extraordinary policy blunder now even forces her to seek help from a most unlikely ally. Over the weekend, Merkel visited Turkey to beg President Erdoğan for help in keeping Syrian refugees in Turkish camps (rather than allowing them leave for central Europe).

That Merkel went cap-in-hand to Istanbul is not without irony. She used to be one of the staunchest opponents of Turkey joining the European Union; her relationship with Erdoğan had always been tense.

Recent events give the impression that she is now trying to turn Erdoğan into an ally, even if it means offering him substantial financial transfers, improved visa conditions for Turkish nationals entering the EU and potentially even a prospect of joining the EU. Erdoğan probably still cannot believe his luck. Two weeks before the Turkish general election, Merkel’s pilgrimage to Turkey must have come as an unexpected gift.

While Turkey is enjoying Merkel’s attention, Germany’s EU partners are less amused. They were at the receiving end of Merkel’s unilateral decisions on border control. Neither Hungary nor France were happy to be confronted with an increased stream of migrants who were all encouraged by Merkel’s invitation to find their way to Europe.

Despite these problems created by Merkel herself, she may still feel safe in her seat for now. There are no obvious challengers in her own party. Home secretary Thomas de Maizière used to be seen as potential successor but has not left a good impression in the crisis and was effectively demoted when Merkel relocated refugee coordination in her own chancellery. There had never been doubts about defence secretary Ursula von der Leyen’s ambitions, but she is now fighting for her career after elements of plagiarism had been detected in her PhD thesis.

So for now, Merkel seems safe. This may change, however, when three federal states go to the polls on 16 March next year. The way public opinion is shifting now, these elections could become a debacle for Merkel if she does not manage to stem the refugee flow by then.

What would have been unthinkable even a few months ago now looks like a plausible scenario: Merkel’s chancellorship may be drawing to a close sooner than anyone imagined. And she would leave her country with a burden instead of a positive legacy.

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