Inside Story

Merkel’s high-stakes stand

German chancellor Angela Merkel has shaken off a reputation for indecisiveness, writes Klaus Neumann. But can she hold the line on asylum seekers as circumstances change?

Klaus Neumann 19 October 2015 3610 words

Left in the lurch: German chancellor Angela Merkel at the start of an EU summit focusing on migration in Brussels late last week. Olivier Hoslet/EPA

Until quite recently, Angela Merkel was known for her propensity to dither. A word has even been coined to describe it: merkeln. It’s true that the German chancellor has a reputation, particularly outside Germany, for being one of the twenty-first century’s most powerful and successful political leaders, but during her ten years in office she has hardly ever led from the front. And the decisions she has eventually made haven’t revealed any particular vision for the future, nor have they seemed to be informed by an ideology or a personal politics.

All this has changed in recent weeks, and suddenly Merkel is barely recognisable. It’s not easy to pinpoint the date when the merkeln stopped, but the new Merkel was definitely on display as early as 31 August, during the traditional Sommerpressekonferenz – an extended interview during the summer break with members of the Berlin press gallery. Most of that press conference was taken up by a discussion about the refugee crisis, which Merkel initiated before inviting the first question.

The number of asylum seekers reaching Germany via Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary and Austria had risen sharply over the previous two months. On 19 August, interior minister Thomas de Maizière said he expected 800,000 asylum seekers to arrive in 2015 – about twenty times as many as five years ago, and more than four times as many as last year.

On 21 and 22 August, a racist mob protested against a decision by the state government of Saxony to accommodate more than 500 asylum seekers in a former hardware store in Heidenau, a small town just south of the state capital, Dresden. During one of the violent demonstrations, thirty-one of the police protecting the asylum seeker accommodation were injured, one of them seriously.

When Merkel’s deputy, Social Democratic Party leader Sigmar Gabriel, visited Heidenau on 24 August he referred to the racists who had tried to attack the facility as Pack (scum) and demanded that they be locked up. He told reporters that it was important not to concede even one millimetre to “the most un-German characters I could imagine.” This was all the more important a signal because it came from a politician who only six months earlier had empathised with some of the concerns articulated by Pegida, a far-right protest movement that was particularly strong in Dresden.

Merkel too condemned the riots in Heidenau that day, declaring that Germany respected the dignity of all human beings and that she was appalled by the xenophobia of the demonstrators. But it took her another two days to visit Heidenau, where she told locals opposed to the asylum seeker accommodation that there would be “no tolerance towards those who question the dignity of others.”

During the Sommerpressekonferenz, Merkel repeated that sentence, and added: “There can be no apologies… The key is not to show even the slightest bit of understanding. No biographical experience, nothing that happened in the past, nothing, absolutely nothing justifies [their] stance.” These comments could be read as a belated criticism of Gabriel and others from her own party who had sought the dialogue with the protesters from Pegida despite its ultra-nationalism and xenophobia. They could also be read as a reference to lessons learnt by West German Christian Democrats in the early 1990s, when attempts to accommodate some of the positions advocated by the far-right Republikaner party resulted not only in boosting support for that party but also in a significant weakening of the Christian Democrats in the 1992 state elections in Baden-Württemberg.

By the end of August, thousands of refugees were arriving in Germany every day. Merkel said that she was proud of and grateful for Germans’ overwhelmingly positive response. She praised the journalists who were reporting that response in great detail, and urged them to keep doing so as a means of encouraging their audiences. And then she, too, provided the words of encouragement that shaped the discussion about Germany’s response to the refugee crisis. Commenting on the challenges posed by the unprecedented numbers arriving in Germany, she said, “Germany is a strong country. Our mantra… has to be: we have been able to do so much – we are able to do this.”

Who inspired Merkel’s “Wir schaffen das” (“We are able to do this”), which she has repeated many times since? The Economist tweeted, tongue in cheek, that Merkel’s optimism is that of Bob the Builder, who routinely asks his motley crew of helpers, “Can we fix it?” to which they respond in unison, “Yes we can!” Others have sought to credit Barack Obama with Merkel’s line. But neither the hero of the British animated television series nor the US president had a specific task in mind; their “yes we can” applies to all manner of challenges. Merkel’s “Wir schaffen das,” on the other hand, is very specific: Germany, she has been telling her somewhat sceptical domestic audience, will be able to cope with what is undoubtedly its biggest challenge in this century: the influx of possibly over a million irregular migrants this year.

I suspect Merkel hasn’t been referencing Obama but words used by former German chancellor (and her erstwhile mentor) Helmut Kohl on the last occasion that Germany was faced by an almost impossible task: German reunification. On 1 July 1990, in a televised address to a nation that did not yet include the formerly communist East of the country, Kohl acknowledged the problems experienced by East Germans during the transition to a united Germany, and asked them not to let themselves be discouraged by these difficulties. “If you look optimistically towards the future, if everybody gives a hand,” he said, “then you and we together will be able to do it.” And then he, too, referenced another, historical challenge, this time addressing Germans in both East and West: “We will be able to do it [‘Wir werden es schaffen’] – if we draw on the skills we employed more than forty years ago, in a much more difficult situation, to build the Federal Republic of Germany out of the rubble of our cities and villages.”

Four days after the Sommerpressekonferenz, Merkel and her Austrian counterpart, Social Democrat Werner Faymann, agreed to open their countries’ borders temporarily to irregular migrants arriving via Hungary. Later, Merkel justified this by saying, “There are… situations when it is necessary to make decisions. I could not have waited for twelve hours and contemplated the issues.” In other words, merkeln was not an option.

Was Merkel, and were the Germans who welcomed refugees at Munich’s central railway station in early September, moved to act as they were watching footage of large numbers of Syrians stranded at the central railway station in Budapest shouting, “Germany! Germany!”? The Economist thought so: “Hearing their name cried out neither in fear nor in a football stadium but in gratitude and hope touched the public enough to turn them, at least for now, in favour of a Willkommenskultur (‘welcome culture’).”

There are other credible explanations. To what extent was Merkel trying to undo the damage done to Germany’s reputation in July, when her government insisted on humiliating and unrealistic conditions in the negotiations between Greece and its European creditors? Was she perhaps trying to shake the image of being an Eiskönigin, the German title of the 2013 Walt Disney film Frozen, which was an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s story about a heartless snow queen? Merkel had earned that epithet in July when she seemed unable to empathise with a fourteen-year-old Palestinian refugee, Reem Sahwil, at a school in the north German city of Rostock. Or did Merkel suddenly remember her roots as the daughter of a Protestant pastor? Or was she perhaps genuinely moved by both the plight of refugees and the overwhelmingly warm response of Germans to their arrival?

Whatever the reasons, Merkel has dug in despite the fact that, over the past three or four weeks, it has become evident that most Germans don’t share their chancellor’s optimism, and that many disagree with her response to the refugee crisis. Refugees keep arriving in large numbers, and an end to the mass influx is not yet in sight. Federal, state and local government institutions are struggling to cope. Some of their difficulties reflect incompetence and poor planning, but many of them are the result of an unprecedented logistical nightmare.

Merkel has also lost support among her own troops. At a party room meeting on 13 October, several backbenchers openly contradicted her – something that supposedly had never happened before. At a regional party meeting in Saxony, a couple of days later, she was heckled. Horst Seehofer, premier of Bavaria and the leader of the Christian Democrats’ sister party, the Christian Social Union (which exists only in Bavaria), has repeatedly criticised the federal government’s response to the refugee crisis. Like others, Seehofer has made Merkel personally responsible for the large number of arrivals during September – more than 270,000, according to the Bavarian state government – and claimed that she should never have agreed to open Germany’s borders on 3 September.

Interior minister de Maizière, Merkel’s former chief of staff and confidant, also appeared to follow her only reluctantly – and on 7 October the chancellor responded by relieving him of his responsibility for the federal government’s response to refugees.

Merkel’s immense popularity had long rested on the fact that she has always managed to articulate the views of a majority of Germans. They did not follow her; rather, she followed them. For six weeks now, Merkel has been leading from the front – a position neither she nor the electorate is accustomed to. It’s not surprising that her popularity has plummeted.

The Merkel of old would probably have tried to backtrack. At least she would have remained silent and waited for developments in her favour. She would have done what she used to do: merkeln.

The new Merkel has been trying to take the electorate with her. She has set out to convince them with arguments, but she has also been prepared to make known her very personal views. In a joint press conference with the Austrian chancellor on 15 September, she again referred to the riots in Heidenau and contrasted them with the hospitality afforded to refugees elsewhere in Germany. In response to a question that suggested she and Werner Faymann had made a mistake in early September, she became emotional: “Honestly I have to say: if we now have to start apologising for showing a friendly face in an emergency situation, then this is not my country.”

Merkel has had very little experience in the art of convincing a sceptical electorate. But so far she has acquitted herself surprisingly well. She has been urging Germans to trust her; but rather than relying on promises and slogans, she has tried to convey a realistic assessment of a complex situation. She has countered Seehofer’s demand that Germany close its borders by explaining that it is impossible to stop refugees entering Germany from Austria (unless, of course, Germany were to build Berlin Wall–like fortifications along its 3000 kilometre border).

In the first half of October, she used every available opportunity to communicate directly with the electorate – something she normally doesn’t do, if only because there has been no need to. On 4 October, she gave a long interview on national radio in which she said that nobody makes the decision to leave one’s home lightly, and that those who need Germany’s protection will receive that protection. On 12 October, the tabloid Bild published a four-page interview with Merkel. With more than two million copies sold each day, Bild is Germany’s most influential newspaper; once in the forefront of those campaigning against asylum seekers, it has been surprisingly uncritical of Merkel’s approach in recent weeks.

On 7 October, she was interviewed for an hour by Anne Will, the host of one of Germany’s premier television talk shows – the first such interview in four years. Rather than trying to qualify some of her earlier optimism, she insisted that it was possible to get a chaotic situation under control without resorting to the kinds of measures adopted by Hungary. Germany will be able to accommodate a very large number of refugees, she told viewers, and it will soon be able to do so in an orderly fashion.

If she was worried by her waning support in both the party and the electorate at large, she didn’t show it. She was calm, demonstrating that she had worked things out – not in the sense that she knew what to do to manage the influx of irregular migrants, but in the sense that she had made up her mind that she had made the right decision. And she again showed some passion when she told Will that she was not in favour of a race to the bottom in devising measures to deter refugees.

In her attempt to be realistic and principled, Merkel further alienated Seehofer and other critics. She told Will that it was impossible to predict how many more refugees Germany would have to accept because there were no provisions in Article 16a of the German Constitution, which guarantees the right to asylum, that allow the government to cap the number of applications that are processed or the number of positive outcomes.

Merkel is probably right to say that she had little choice in early September. Closing the border to Austria was never a realistic option (although there have been plenty who have demanded just that – on Sunday, the chief of the Police Union demanded that Germany build a fence along its Austrian border). The refugee crisis was not of her making; it’s the result of the conflicts in Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq, of the dire human rights situation in Eritrea, and of the lack of opportunities for young people in the impoverished countries of the Western Balkans.

Merkel has been justly applauded for encouraging Germans to welcome refugees, and for telling them that Germany would be able to accommodate hundreds of thousands of irregular migrants at very short notice. That is not to say that she would have foreseen her government’s current predicament. She could not have known that Europe as a whole would leave Germany, Austria and Sweden – the only EU countries that have openly welcomed refugees – in the lurch. She could not have foreseen that her fellow Christian Democrats, who owe her numerous election victories at federal, state and local levels, would abandon her so quickly.

Germans are now asking two questions: “Schaffen wir das?” (which Merkel tried to pre-empt when she declared, “We are able to do it”) and “Schafft sie das?” (“Is she able to do this?”).

Obviously an answer to the second question largely depends on the outcome of the challenge posed by the arrival of perhaps as many as 1.5 million irregular migrants this year. How quickly will the authorities be able to return to an orderly and predictable process? Tens of thousands of arrivals have not yet been registered. If only for that reason, there are no reliable figures as to the exact number of arrivals. At the latest count, 42,000 people are still accommodated in tents, some of which are not heated, and the authorities in several states have admitted that they will not be able to move them out before the onset of winter (which, incidentally, has already arrived early this year, with snow briefly blanketing parts of Germany last week).

Much will also depend on whether fewer refugees will arrive in the coming months. That in turn will depend on providing significantly more funding for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and for NGOs working with refugees in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, and on making the Dublin III agreement, whereby asylum seekers are the responsibility of the EU countries where they first arrive (that is, principally Italy, Greece and Hungary), work. It is likely that the cooler temperatures will also discourage refugees from risking the passage to Greece or Italy.

Perhaps most importantly, a reduction in the number of asylum seekers reaching Europe will depend on whether Germany and the European Union can strike a deal with Turkey. This is a delicate issue. Turkey has already used the refugee crisis to extract significant funding and political concessions from its European partners. At the same time the Turkish government has been using the war in Syria as a smokescreen for its own war against Kurds who are demanding more autonomy. In fact, Turkey itself is a refugee-producing country. And according to the European Council on Refugees and Exiles, the EU-wide recognition rate for asylum seekers from Turkey last year was 23.1 per cent.

Merkel’s stance has a hard edge. Not only is she willing to make concessions to Turkey and its autocratic president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, indirectly lending support to his current Turkish election campaign. She has also endorsed a proposal by Bavaria’s Horst Seehofer to establish “transit zones” at Germany’s borders, where those likely to be granted asylum would be separated from others, with the idea that asylum seekers from the Western Balkans, for example, would be promptly deported.

A series of harsher measures will be implemented from 1 November. On 15 October, the Bundestag passed the Asylverfahrensbeschleunigungsgesetz, a government-initiated law that allows for speedier removal of failed asylum seekers while providing more federal funding for integrating refugees whose applications are likely to be successful. Both Amnesty International and the German umbrella refugee advocacy organisation Pro Asyl had urged parliament to vote against the bill, but their appeals were in vain.

So far, there is no challenger to Merkel waiting in the wings. Seehofer is fighting for his own survival in Bavaria (where the far-right Alternative für Deutschland is gaining in strength) and has no ambitions to dethrone the chancellor. Besides, most of his demands for a tougher policy couldn’t possibly be implemented even if the government had the political will to try. The only Christian Democrat with a stature approaching that of Merkel is Wolfgang Schäuble, but so far he remains a loyal supporter. The Social Democrats, Merkel’s minor partner in the federal government, seem to be divided about how to respond to the refugee crisis, and are not offering a credible alternative. In fact, many Social Democrats believe that Merkel is a better choice as chancellor than Gabriel because the latter couldn’t be trusted to uphold the right of asylum. Importantly, Merkel still enjoys the qualified support of most of the media.

The Greens, one of two opposition parties in federal parliament, also support Merkel. Many of their followers admire her principled stance and are prepared to put up with her willingness to make a deal with Turkey, and to tolerate the unsavoury measures contained in the new legislation. Most of the Greens MPs abstained in the Bundestag, and on the following day the Bundesrat, the state-based German Senate, passed the legislation with all eight states in which the Greens are in government voting in favour or abstaining. The other opposition party in the Bundestag, the Linke (the former Party of Democratic Socialism), is more critical, but it too has been willing to side with Merkel against the likes of Seehofer. In recent days I have talked to many people who have never voted for Merkel or her party but confided that they were surprised to suddenly find themselves in the role of Merkel admirers.

Merkel’s supporters hope that she remains steadfast. If Merkel were to say, “Wir schaffen es nicht” (“We won’t be able to do this”), or admit “Ich schaffe es nicht” (“I am not able to do it”) and resign, the consequences could be catastrophic. It would encourage the far right, which in the East German states – and particularly in Saxony – is already a force to be reckoned with. If Merkel were to raise the white flag, the thousands, if not millions, of Germans who work as volunteers, teaching newly arrived refugees German, accommodating them in their homes and providing them with moral support, might feel sufficiently discouraged to give up.

The work of countless volunteers means it is possible that Merkel’s “Wir schaffen es” might become a reality. Without their visible presence, the many Germans who now openly question the dignity of asylum seekers and refugees might gain the upper hand.

The stakes are high. Many Germans are fearful – some because they believe that refugees will take their jobs or that many refugees are rapists or terrorists, and others because they fear that right-wing populists will be allowed to shape Germany’s policies, not only vis-à-vis refugees. The latter desperately want Merkel to be right (“Wir schaffen das”) and to succeed: “Sie muss das schaffen” (“She has to be able to do this”). •