Angela Merkel is under pressure. For many years she has been a rock at Brussels’ conference tables dominated by sobering discussions on the economic and social outlook of EU member states, and the German chancellor has become ever stronger both at home and abroad. While many leaders felt the impact of the economic crisis in elections back home, Merkel only seemed to be gaining in support and confidence. At the height of her success in 2013, she won her party an impressive victory in the federal elections, ultimately turning into the unchallenged face and leader of her Christian Democratic party (CDU), and of German power in Europe. The Kanzlerin (chancellor) earned respect from both her admirers and critics by taking the lead on Europe’s most pressing challenges, i.e. the future of the European Union and Russia’s threat to European security. Handling negotiations on the euro zone crisis and the annexation of Crimea have strengthened her – but dealing with a third fundamental test to Europeans, and indeed Germany, within less than a decade might turn out to be too much, even for Angela Merkel.
After an initial phase of crisis in which Germans dealt with the immediate needs of growing numbers of refugees entering the country, the celebrations surrounding 25 years of reunification this past weekend saw the debate entering a new stage. Stepping back from the daily dealings and looking at the situation from a wider perspective, the question that is increasingly being asked by Germans is: can we successfully integrate the newcomers in the medium-long term as Merkel believes? And ultimately, how many will be coming?
The chancellor’s approval rates have decreased recently, suggesting that there is a direct link between her open-mindedness towards welcoming refugees and her popularity. Politicians of all three parties in Merkel’s coalition have responded to what they interpret as a changing mood in the country about the willingness to welcome more refugees, and critics of her policies have become more articulate, even within her own party. Are these the first signs of a “Kanzlerinnendämmerung”, as one German commentator put it this week? Has Merkel’s power peaked?
Observers who have largely interpreted Angela Merkel’s style of government as pragmatic and unemotional, are seeing a different chancellor lately. Usually more a “doer” than a “talker”, Angela Merkel has not only spent more time explaining her policies to the German public, she has also begun to give rare insights into her personal values and beliefs.
Confronted with mounting criticism against her decision to open the borders for refugees in Hungary this September, Merkel demonstrated an emotional response at a news conference in Berlin. “If we now have to apologise for showing a friendly face in an emergency situation, then this is not my country”, Merkel said. No doubt, she is out to win the argument against her critics, most notably Horst Seehofer, the prime minister of Bavaria and head of the CDU’s Bavarian sister party (CSU), which forms part of the federal government. The location of Bavaria to the south-east of the country and bordering Austria has caused it to become a major transit region for refugees, and Seehofer has repeatedly declared Merkel’s policy on refugees to be fundamentally wrong.
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Against this backdrop of political criticism, in a 30 minute radio interview on 3 October, the day that marked 25 years of German unification, Merkel left no doubt about where she stands on the refugee question. This was a notable contrast to her usual style of refraining from articulating clear positions on major questions (such as the reform of euro zone governance). Merkel seemed confident rising above the usual logic of political communication. For example, she admitted in the conversation that she did not have an answer on how many refugees will have entered the country by the end of 2015. For most politicians such an admission would come with high political costs, and might even be political suicide, but it seems as if such concerns do not apply to Angela Merkel. Having observed the extent to which over the past few years “the Merkel factor” resonates within the country, she has used her own brand to continue to argue the case for a determined, yet rational European approach to this new situation. “It is not my style to quarrel, or duck my head”, she argued, perhaps to the surprise of many who had always thought that this indeed was her style.
Finally, Angela Merkel is ready to leverage the trust that many Germans have placed in her to ask for support on her refugee policy and push for a joint solution at EU level. In the past she has often been criticised for not using her domestic political capital enough to negotiate much needed solutions, in particular on the euro zone reform. But this time, the personal stakes are higher for Merkel. And for the time being it looks like she remains on top of the argument within her party, her coalition government, and the wider public debate. It certainly helps that eminent figures such as President Joachim Gauck are singing from a similar hymn sheet these days.
But Angela Merkel urgently needs her European partners to cooperate, and this need makes her vulnerable, as more people who seek safety and a better life arrive in local communities day by day. Arguably, Merkel is more vulnerable now than in the worst moments of the Greek crisis, when she had to gather support among her party and her electorate for successive rescue plans. Ultimately, Merkel’s spectre of “Europe failing if the euro fails” has so far been rather abstract for Germans. For now, the anti-euro sentiment alone has not provided enough ammunition for populist parties, but the question of migration is potentially far more dangerous for the chancellor. Angela Merkel knows this, as do her coalition partners from the Social Democratic party (SPD). They are now hoping to make electoral gains that will allow them to play a leading role again in future governments, rather than that of a junior partner. In a largely tactical move to capitalise on Merkel’s opening flank, leading figures of the SPD have adopted a rhetoric that proposes limitation of refugee numbers, and have stated that the arrival of refugees en masse raises questions about social peace. It’s not only the SPD who have adopted new forms of rhetoric – critics within her own party have become more outspoken too.
Merkel now has to fight on both the domestic and the European front. Ultimately, the key lies with her EU counterparts – a joint European approach on external border controls and quotas for refugees is the only realistic option to help her win the argument at home. This makes the German government dependent on the goodwill of its partners. The question is not only to what extent Merkel’s European colleagues are able to agree to such a negotiated deal when many of them are confronted with populism, xenophobia, and a lack of resources at home. It is also whether they are willing to help Angela Merkel out.
The German chancellor finds herself in a new position of dependence. Other leaders in Europe have already gone through this painstaking experience over the past years, when they were placed at the weaker end of European decision-making. Merkel’s need for a joint solution will now be a test of the impact that years of (a de facto and perceived) German dominance have had on the Union. In her own moment of vulnerability can Angela Merkel ultimately count on enough helping hands?
This column was first published by the ECFR