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Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Germany's Migrant Crisis - The Perilous Politics and the Perplexed People

The Lonely Chancellor: Merkel Under Fire as 
Refugee Crisis Worsens

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is facing significant blowback
over her refugee policies.
Until recently, German Chancellor Angela Merkel was considered to be the most powerful politician in Europe. But now, her approach to the refugee crisis has her under fire at home and in Brussels. Can she survive? 


For almost three quarters of an hour, it was as though there was no refugee crisis in Germany. Last Monday, Angela Merkel was in Nuremberg for a town hall discussion with a specially chosen group of conservative voters. A moderator in a light-colored, summer suit directed the proceedings as Merkel chatted about everything "that is important to us."

Initially, the focus was on those things that used to be important to Germans -- up until roughly eight weeks ago. Things like vocational education, the country's school system and the difficulty German companies have in competing with companies like Google and Apple.

It was like a trip back in time -- back to Germany's recent past, when the country was happier and untroubled. But then Christine Bruchmann, a local business leader, abruptly steered the discussion back to the issue that has dominated Germany in recent weeks. Bruchmann wanted to know if Merkel was concerned that the huge numbers of refugees currently arriving in the country could disrupt societal balance.

The German chancellor took a deep breath before launching into a sober analysis of the job she has done in the past two months. Unfortunately, her conclusion was not particularly rosy.

She knows, Merkel said, that there still isn't European agreement on how to share the refugee burden; that there is still no deal with Turkey on slowing the inflow of migrants into Europe; and that along the Balkan Route, used by hundreds of thousands of Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis in recent weeks in their quest to seek asylum in Germany and other northern European countries, there is a lack of "order" and "control." In particular, Merkel said, she is concerned about that "which makes Germany so strong," namely "the societal center." She is constantly asking herself, Merkel related, "if we are losing the center."

One of Merkel's great strengths is an unerring sense for political reality. As such, her comments at the town meeting early last week show that nobody knows better than Germany's chancellor just how precarious the situation in the country has become. The influx of refugees continues unabated and Merkel's public approval ratings continue to fall in lockstep with sinking support for her center-right Christian Democrats (CDU). Meanwhile, her quarrel with Horst Seehofer, head of the Christian Social Union (CSU), the CDU's Bavarian sister party, has reached a new and dangerous level. Seehofer has issued so many ultimatums to the chancellor that he will eventually be forced to make good on one of his threats -- which could throw Merkel's suddenly wobbly governing coalition completely off kilter.

'The End of the Merkel Era'

The government, in short, has lost control. And Germany is in a state of emergency.

Merkel can still rely on a large number of supporters within her own party. But each day that thousands of refugees cross into Germany, the certainty that such support is sustainable erodes a bit further. Not long ago, Merkel was considered the strongest political leader in Europe, one whose term in office could only come to an end were she to decide herself against running for reelection in 2017. Now, both foreign and domestic media outlets are wondering aloud whether she will run into serious trouble before Christmas, or shortly thereafter. "The end of the Merkel era is within sight," the Financial Times wrote a week ago.

Merkel's historic decision to open Germany's borders to refugees stuck in Hungary was morally unassailable. But politically, it has put her on the defensive. Now, in order to tighten up Europe's external borders, she is dependent on the help of erstwhile opponents such as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras.

In the EU, meanwhile, her maxim that Europe should not get back into the business of building border fences is being openly questioned. Austrian Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner, for example, announced last week that her country was being forced to build additional security facilities because the "inflow" from Slovenia was larger than the "outflow" into Germany.

There is no shortage of schadenfreude these days when European politicians speak about the German chancellor. The true ruler of Europe, who forced her austerity policies upon the entire Continent, must now come begging for help in dealing with the refugee crisis, people in Brussels are saying.

Indeed, it is slowly becoming apparent that Merkel's influence in the EU is waning just as her support evaporates back home in Germany. To be sure, the chancellor's stock has risen in recent weeks among Green Party supporters and left-wing Social Democrats. But her own core of center-right voters is fearful that the "refugees welcome" movement could give rise to a parallel society of Muslims in the country.

A Shot in the Arm for the Populists

The situation is not dissimilar to the fate of her predecessor Gerhard Schröder. In the early 2000s, the Social Democratic chancellor pushed through welfare cuts and reduced unemployment benefits that severely alienated many in his party. The result was a reanimated Left Party, the far-left political movement that partially grew out of the former East German communist party.

This time, leading German politicians have warned, Merkel's asylum policies could provide a shot in the arm to the country's right-wing populists. One member of her government warns that her stance on migrants is an "aid program for the AfD," a reference to the anti-immigration party Alternative for Germany. The party, which received 4.7 percent of the vote in Germany's last general election, is currently polling at 8 percent, according to a survey released on Saturday.

CDU members say that Merkel's only option for freeing herself from the trap in which she currently finds herself is that of rapidly reducing the number of immigrants arriving in Germany. But it doesn't currently look as though that is a realistic possibility. Some 500,000 refugees have entered the country since the beginning of September, and there is no end in sight. "Prepare for the eventuality that in the coming weeks, 10,000 to 12,000 refugees will arrive at the border each day," a member of the Coordinating Committee inside of Germany's Interior Ministry said last Wednesday, quoting from a communiqué from the Austrian Interior Ministry.

The situation at Germany's borders has indeed become dramatic. Last week, for example, Austrian authorities brought over 7,000 refugees to the German border and simply unloaded them there at 3:30 a.m. One day later, Emily Haber, state secretary in Germany's Interior Ministry, said: "We have to prevent a repeat of such chaotic scenes at the German border." She then added: "That was a clear violation of the agreements."

One exhausted aid worker spoke of a "humanitarian catastrophe." And SPD parliamentarian Christian Flisek from the German border city of Passau said: "We are transforming our border areas into the country's refugee camp. It can't continue indefinitely."

The mood isn't just becoming critical at the border. In late October, 215 mayors in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia wrote a letter to Chancellor Merkel and to the state's governor, Hannelore Kraft, saying that their ability to cope with the situation had been exhausted. Almost all available shelters were full to overflowing, they wrote, and even providing people shelter in tents or containers was hardly possible anymore. Furthermore, the municipalities are so busy with managing the inflow of refugees "that we are unable, or only partially able, to fulfill our other municipal responsibilities," they wrote in the letter. At almost exactly the same time, five municipal politicians from another region in the state sent an additional letter of protest to Governor Kraft's office.

Perils for Merkel

It's a strange development for Merkel. It has been a long time since she has faced such dissent. But there's another reason that the development could become perilous for Merkel. Recently, greater scrutiny has been placed on Merkel's policies of the past months -- and it has revealed that she has made some far reaching mistakes.

For one, Merkel's Chancellery responded far too late to the historic dimensions of the crisis. Already as far back as February, local communities had already begun ringing the alarm for help. In May, transit country Serbia began preparing for larger refugee movements. But officials in Berlin did nothing.

The Interior Ministry refused to allow the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees to hire additional staff for processing asylum applications and thousands of old cases were left unprocessed. Later, when it became clear that the task at hand was too much for the head of the agency, he still remained in office for weeks.

In June, CDU members of the state legislature in Baden-Württemberg warned in Berlin that the situation could get out of hand, but federal government officials didn't even begin to think about switching into crisis mode.

And then came Hungary. Merkel's decision to open the border was correct. There was a humanitarian emergency and there was no time for lengthy consideration. But even correct decisions can have undesired consequences. Merkel failed to strongly state that taking in refugees in this way was an exception. It created the impression that Germany was prepared to accept every refugee who came to Europe. She didn't mean it that way, but that was the message that many wanted to hear.

Merkel's approval rating

Playing into Orbán's Hands

Merkel's move played right into the hands of Hungarian Prime Minister Orbán. He had wanted to suspend the Dublin Agreement, which requires asylum applications to be processed in the European country where refugees first arrive. Under Dublin, his country would have been forced to take in many of the refugees. The chancellor did him a favor in opening the borders and suspending the original rules.

"A European problem was turned into a German one," Berlin's Tagesspiegel newspaper wrote in an editorial. And the point at which Merkel called for European solidarity came too late. Germany's partners understood action taken by the government in Berlin to be an invitation to simply pass the refugees on to Germany. Orbán accused Merkel of brazenness and even moral imperialism.

All at once, the balance of power in the EU was turned on its head. As it turns out, the woman who until very recently had been hailed the "Queen of Europe" has insufficient leverage to force her European neighbors to help.

Instead, Merkel has navigated herself into a corner. The fact that she has been abandoned by both her European neighbors and many within her own party has strongly reduced the chancellor's room for maneuver. Nor is any help from her coalition partner, the center- left Social Democrats (SPD), to be expected.

Instead, the SPD are observing with barely concealed satisfaction how their seemingly invincible opponent is weakening herself. They seem to be taking a sit back and relax attitude, even though the party itself doesn't stand to profit from the chancellor's weakness due to its perpetually weak standing in public opinion polls, where it appears to have become stuck on 25 percent, a pitiful figure for a once large party.

After initially expressing sympathy for Seehofer's demand to establish "transit zones," the party is now indicating an unwillingness to compromise. "We will not agree to the detention centers," said Thomas Oppermann, the head of the party's group in parliament. Instead he is calling for the further suspension of the Schengen Agreement. "Independent of that, however, we need to quickly apply assertive border controls and ensure that there are orderly conditions when it comes to entry into Germany."

Merkel is wavering, but is there a chance she will actually fall? The threat has never been as great during her 10 years in office. At the same time, Merkel is also an experienced crisis manager who knows that her political survival is dependent on lowering the number of refugees.

The CDU and the CSU tend to hold on to their leaders as long as they can continue to win elections. In March, voters will go to the polling stations in three German states. In that sense, Merkel has precisely four months' time to get the situation under control.

Much more discussion is found on the original article in Spiegel. It centres mostly around interior and regional politics.