Inside Story

Angela Merkel’s line in the sand

Despite state elections this weekend, the German chancellor is sticking to her pledge to run a “rational” refugee policy, writes Klaus Neumann. Meanwhile, public opinion is volatile

Klaus Neumann 9 March 2016 3216 words

Refugees waving a German flag and yelling “Mama Merkel” at a refugee camp near the border between Greece and Macedonia in Idomeni, Greece, earlier this week. Kay Nietfeld/EPA

Next Sunday, 13 March, has been looming large in the imaginations of German politicians, policy-makers and commentators in recent months. Voters in three states – Baden-Württemberg and Rheinland-Pfalz in the West, and Sachsen-Anhalt in the East – will elect new state parliaments. It is expected that Angela Merkel’s federal government in Berlin will be punished at the polls, albeit by proxy, for mismanaging Germany’s response to refugees.

Prominent Christian Democrats have been urging Merkel, the leader of their party, to set an upper limit on the number of refugees allowed into Germany, and have criticised her for opening the country’s borders to refugees in September last year. The conservative Christian Democrats’ coalition partners have also sought to distance themselves from the German chancellor: in November, Horst Seehofer, the leader of the Christian Social Union – the Christian Democrats’ sister party in Bavaria – publicly humiliated Merkel over her stance on refugees at a party congress, and four weeks ago he described her refugee policies as Herrschaft des Unrechts (a rule of injustice) because, he argued, she had acted outside the law. The accusation was designed to hurt deeply: most Germans would associate a country in which Unrecht reigns supreme as an Unrechtsstaat, a term reserved for Nazi Germany and for the communist-era German Democratic Republic, where Merkel lived most of her life.

Most observers were convinced that the government would have either restricted the number of refugees arriving at the border in time for this Sunday’s elections, or abandoned its policy of admitting all those who presented themselves. Some speculated that Merkel, if she proved inflexible, would be replaced, or that she would go on to be toppled after 13 March if voters desert the Christian Democrats in droves.

Until recently, Merkel herself did little to dampen the expectation that her government would be able to get on top of the situation. She assured Germans that the European Union would eventually come to Germany’s rescue by agreeing to a fair distribution of refugees among member states. At the same time, she insisted that the only way to address the refugee crisis in Europe effectively was to tackle its root causes.

A meeting of the EU heads of government on 18 and 19 February was meant to finally seal a deal. Domestically, Merkel prepared the ground by addressing parliament and advocating a European solution based on a deal with Turkey. She also drew a line in the sand: “Those who need and seek protection shall be granted protection.”

The EU leaders met, but the Turkish prime minister, whose cooperation was needed to strike a deal, failed to turn up because a car bomb had killed thirty people in Ankara the day before he was to travel to Brussels. A meeting of the “coalition of the willing” – those of Germany’s European partners least hostile to the idea of burden-sharing – was cancelled, not least because one of Germany’s erstwhile allies, Austria, had closed its borders to refugees. Merkel appeared to be isolated. With the defection of Austria, and the earlier announcement by Sweden – the European country that took in the largest number of refugees per capita last year – that it too would no longer be able to keep its borders open, Germany’s last remaining ally, out of self-interest if nothing else, was Greece.

Another special EU summit was scheduled for 7 March. The timing would have left Merkel with barely an opportunity to turn around the tide of public opinion in Germany, which had become increasingly critical of her response to the refugee crisis. This time, before travelling once more to Brussels, she cautioned Germans not to expect too much. It was just as well she did. The summit ended in the early hours of Tuesday morning, this time with the Turkish prime minister in attendance, but again without an agreement.

But at least it was now possible to glimpse the contours of a possible joint European–Turkish response. Turkey would commit to policing its maritime border with Greece and preventing refugees from trying to reach Kos, Lesbos and other Greek islands off the Turkish coast. It would also take back irregular migrants who had entered Greece via Turkey. The European Union would pay Turkey a total of €6 billion for its efforts, twice as much as previously agreed. But the Turkish government wants more than just monetary compensation. It proposed that for every migrant Turkey received from Greece, the European Union would accept a Syrian refugee whose protection claims had been recognised, from Turkey. Australian readers might be reminded of Julia Gillard’s failed Malaysia refugee swap.

Turkey may expect, and may indeed have been promised, other concessions that have not been broadcast yet: most importantly, a speeding up of the process of EU accession, and visa-free entry into EU countries for Turkish citizens.

By the time the European leaders next meet, on 17 March, the voters of Baden-Württemberg, Rheinland-Pfalz and Sachsen-Anhalt are likely to have transformed Germany’s political landscape. According to the latest opinion polls, 13 per cent of voters in Baden-Württemberg and 9 per cent in Rheinland-Pfalz will vote for the Alternative für Deutschland (Alternative for Germany), or AfD. In Sachsen-Anhalt, the party is forecast to win almost 20 per cent of the vote.

The AfD was founded only three years ago by Bernd Lucke, a prominent Eurosceptic and professor of economics at the University of Hamburg. Lucke and his supporters left the party last year because it was drifting inexorably towards the far right of the political spectrum. Now, the AfD campaigns on a platform that demands the immediate closure of Germany’s borders. Its leader, East German Frauke Petry, has gone so far as to say that the security forces ought to be given orders to shoot refugees trying to cross into Germany, seemingly oblivious of the fact that not long ago, after the fall of the Wall, German border guards who had followed orders to shoot refugees were tried in German courts.

At the last federal elections, the AfD, then still with a largely Eurosceptic focus, narrowly missed getting over the 5 per cent threshold designed to keep minor parties out of parliament. But it was more successful in subsequent state elections, and is now represented in three state parliaments in East Germany and two in West Germany. And local elections in the West German state of Hessen last weekend provided a taste of what might happen on Sunday. The AfD won about 13 per cent of the vote and is now the third-largest party at the local level, ahead of the Greens. (It should be noted, however, that the AfD’s success in Hessen was also the result of a record low voter turnout.)

The conservatives have good reason to be afraid of the AfD’s growing popularity, as people who last voted for the Christian Democrats seem particularly inclined to cast their vote for the AfD. The other party losing a large proportion of votes to the far right is Die Linke (The Left), the successor party of the Socialist Unity Party, the communist party that was once in control of the German Democratic Republic. Die Linke is particularly strong in East Germany, and its voters are more likely than others to feel disadvantaged and vulnerable to suggestions that ordinary Germans are suffering because refugees are receiving special attention and devouring federal, state and local government resources.

It is perhaps more surprising that the AfD is appealing to Germans who have traditionally voted for the Christian Democrats. This could well be because of (rather than despite) the fact that conservatives like Horst Seehofer have adopted some of the AfD’s rhetoric and proposals in demanding that the government take a tougher approach on refugees. Twenty-four years ago, Germany was also deeply divided over the question of how to respond to refugee arrivals. Then, the Christian Democrats were afraid of another party on the far right, Die Republikaner, and ahead of crucial state elections in Baden-Württemberg they sought to cancel out the far right’s appeal by embracing some of its rhetoric. The strategy misfired badly, with Die Republikaner gaining almost 11 per cent of the vote. Most of the right-wing party’s voters had previously voted for the conservatives.

After these 1992 state elections, and after it dawned on conservative political leaders that they had contributed to the poisoning of the debate by tolerating racism and xenophobia, Germany’s political establishment changed tack and distanced itself from the far right and its xenophobic rhetoric. With some notable exceptions, particularly in Saxony, the far right lost votes and influence. So it could well be that the Christian Democrats will lose votes because many of them, including its leaders in Baden-Württemberg and Rheinland-Pfalz, Guido Wolf and Julia Klöckner, gave in to the temptation to berate Angela Merkel about her unpopular refugee policy, and thereby repeated the tactical mistake of twenty-four years ago.

In Baden-Württemberg, the polls predict a clear win for the party of the reigning premier, the Greens. If that happens, it will be the first time in German political history that the Greens have become the strongest party in a state election. In Rheinland-Pfalz, the reigning premier is a Social Democrat who only a couple of months ago was rated no more than an outside chance of winning the elections. But she is doing well, and may yet pip Klöckner at the post. Significantly, the premiers of Rheinland-Pfalz and Baden-Württemberg have been vocal supporters of Merkel’s stance on refugees.

It is true that the overwhelming majority of Germans is now opposed to Merkel’s refugee policy. (Support for the policy has picked up again, though, after it reached a low when young men, many of them recent arrivals from North Africa, sexually assaulted women celebrating New Year in the streets of Cologne and other German cities.) Yet Merkel’s overall approval rating is still comparatively high. And recent surveys reveal that a majority of Germans still agree that refugees fleeing persecution or war ought to be granted protection in Germany.

Merkel can count on a handful of prominent loyalists in her own party, on the support of key Social Democrats (such as Rheinland-Pfalz’s premier, Malu Dreyer), and on the backing of the Greens, who for some time now have appeared to be Merkel’s favourite option as future coalition partner. She still has the support of large sections of the print and electronic media, most importantly the mass-circulation tabloid Bild, which in the early 1990s was in the forefront of those vilifying asylum seekers. Bild not only supports Merkel’s line on refugees, but is also running a strong campaign against the AfD.

While the AfD’s anti-refugee hysteria appeals to a sizeable chunk of the electorate, and while public protests against refugees are on the increase, particularly in East Germany, many other Germans are willing to take to the streets to protest against racism and xenophobia, and to lend authorities a hand in dealing with the one million new arrivals last year. Most of those committed to actively supporting the settlement of refugees in Germany seem unlikely to vote for the Christian Democrats, but Merkel can count on their support nevertheless.

Regardless of the outcome of the elections on Sunday, Merkel won’t resign. And there is nobody in her own party who is likely to topple her. The only immediate alternative to Merkel would be Wolfgang Schäuble, but at seventy-three he would be an interim solution at best. The only Christian Democrat who seems a viable option to lead the party into the next federal election campaign, defence minister Ursula von der Leyen, has supported Merkel’s refugee policy.

Perhaps Merkel’s biggest assets, however, are her personal strengths. For one, she has stamina. The most recent EU summit wasn’t the first that saw her still sitting at the table, arguing her position, at 3 o’clock in the morning. When dealing with her party and with the German electorate she has also proven able to keep listening without deviating from her bottom line. And she has proven to be able eventually to convince her listeners that she is right. In December, when it seemed that she had few friends left in her own party, she received a standing ovation when she defended her refugee policy at the party’s annual congress.

Another key strength is her self-belief. In a one-hour conversation with talkshow host Anne Will broadcast ten days ago, she said that she did not have a Plan B, and that the search for escape routes was a distraction she did not need. “Only the person who is confident and has self-belief can win,” she added.

Again and again during the interview she used the word vernünftig, which translates as reasonable or rational. “I believe, we are on a rational pathway,” she said. And: “I am committed to providing a rational solution.” The natural scientist who became a politician showed little sympathy for colleagues – in Germany and elsewhere in Europe – who are pursuing options that may be popular but are neither rational nor reasonable. She claimed that politicians have a duty to generate rational and reasonable outcomes out of complex and difficult situations, rather than give in to the impulse to please voters clamouring for a deceptively easy fix. This is not the Merkel of old, who on many occasions was quite happy to endorse popular options rather than promote solutions that were in the country’s best long-term interests.

It must pain Merkel that the rational arguments she puts forward haven’t gained much traction. Most Germans now blame her for opening the borders in early September, for instance, but Merkel rightly claims that this perception is wrong. “The borders were open,” she says. “I just didn’t close them.” She was not in favour of closed European borders then, and she isn’t now. The draft resolution of this week’s EU summit proclaimed that for irregular migrants the route from Greece via the Western Balkans to Central and Northern Europe had been closed. Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras and Merkel opposed that line (the former because it meant that refugees would become stranded in Greece), and successfully insisted it be revised. Leaving one of the meetings on Monday night, and having already walked past waiting journalists, Merkel turned around and told them, “Today is not about closing anything!”

She is convinced that it doesn’t make sense to build fences – that it’s not a rational decision. This has little to do with an inner conviction; after all, she believes in border controls between Turkey and Greece, and, ultimately, in the idea of a Fortress Europe. This is not to say that her policy lacks personal conviction. It comes into play when she talks about the anti-refugee hysteria in places such as Heidenau and Clausnitz. As she told Anne Will ten days ago, “Human dignity shall be inviolable. That’s Article 1 of our Constitution, and that applies to everybody who is in our country, no matter whether they are German or a guest or a refugee or whoever.” Article 1 of Germany’s Basic Law doesn’t specify that it applies to anybody who happens to be on German territory, but for Merkel there is no doubt that this was the intention of its drafters. In fact, in an interview yesterday she again referred to Article 1, but misquoted it. “Die Würde jedes Menschen ist unantastbar” (Every human being’s dignity shall be inviolable), she said, adding that this also meant it was important not to think of refugees as an amorphous mass of people but to respect each refugee with his or her unique history.

In the meantime, refugees keep arriving in Greece. The route from Greece to Germany – via Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia and Austria – has been almost cut off since Serbia and Slovenia decided that migrants transiting their country will now need a visa. But a new route may soon open up, with refugees travelling from Greece via Albania and then crossing the Adriatic Sea to Italy.

The ceasefire in Syria holds, but that is not to say that the exodus of refugees from Syria has stopped, or that Syrian refugees living in Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon aren’t still trying to seek protection in Europe. Besides, Syrians aren’t the only ones fleeing war and persecution; those desperate to reach Europe also include Afghans, Iraqis, Eritreans and others.

In Germany, thanks to the barbed wire fences being rolled out along borders in the Western Balkans, the number of refugees arriving from Austria has decreased significantly. In February, the federal police counted only 38,750 new arrivals, and the numbers keep dropping. If the influx of refugees arriving via Austria were to slow to a trickle, then Germany could offer to take a large proportion, if not all, of the Syrians who have been found to be refugees in Turkey and who are being traded for migrants returned to Turkey from Greece. To make the Turkish proposal viable, Germany might have to do that anyway; at last count, only 870 of the 160,000 refugees in Greece or Italy that the European Union agreed to distribute across member states last year have been resettled.

The crucial question is this: will Germans support a significant intake of refugees – something in the order of half a million per year? My guess is that they will, as long as the government favours the resettlement of a substantial number of refugees and strongly argues its case. That will depend, in turn, on whether Merkel can survive her party’s disastrous showing at the forthcoming elections. I expect that she will survive, and comfortably. And she may not be too unhappy for the Christian Democrats’ rising star Julia Klöckner, who has given her a lot of grief over the government’s refugee policy, to fail in Rheinland-Pfalz, and for political ally Winfried Kretschmann, of the Greens, to remain premier in Baden-Württemberg. Strange times indeed.

Merkel will keep trying to convince Germans that her approach is vernünftig and thus in Germany’s best interest. At this point, at least, her arguments aren’t making headway in the emotionally charged debate about refugees. Maybe she realises that it will take more than appeals to reason to shift German public opinion and the views of her counterparts in other EU countries. In her interview with Anne Will, she referred to the situation at Idomeni, at the Greece–Macedonia border. “Maybe those pictures will have some impact,” she mused, hoping perhaps that Europe will once more be swayed by images of suffering. •