Geordie Kidston, Head of Research
Angela Merkel is widely regarded as the most powerful EU leader and a pragmatic and safe pair of hands. She stood firm with Finance Minister, Wolfgang Schäuble throughout last summer’s Greek debt crisis, despite accusations of Nazi-like behaviour from Athens, earning herself considerable kudos in Germany, if not elsewhere. By sticking to what she saw as European values and rules, she was seen as working towards ensuring European cohesion.
Yet her welcoming of 800,000 refugees from the Middle East (and elsewhere) into Germany, however morally pleasing, is causing serious ructions, both domestically and among her European partners.
At the core of this is her brushing aside the 1991 Dublin Regulations of the EU which state that asylum ought to be handled in a refugee’s first port of call, a policy that has fallen apart because of the freedom of movement guaranteed by the 1985 Schengen Agreement, which has also come under attack both before and after the terrorist massacres in Paris. The conflation of migration and terrorism is likely to be a game changer.
The likely influx of around one million refugees in 2015 has taxed Germany’s ability to handle their arrival, not to mention their longer term absorption into German society. Domestically she seems increasingly isolated because of two disastrous sentences: “There is no upper limit” and “We can cope”. In particular, the leader of Merkel’s Bavarian sister party (the Christian Social Union) has asked aloud who is going to pay for the thousands of new public officials, from policemen to teachers, who will be needed to cope with this surge of migrants, whose values are often very different from those of most Germans (and who may include adherents of ISIS, as we have since learned). “Paris changes everything,” said Markus Soder, the Bavarian Finance Minister.
Many Muslim men are adding to the strains on Germany’s medical system by refusing treatment from female doctors and nurses. According to the mainstream German press, one in ten women arriving is pregnant and there have been outbreaks of diseases long since eradicated in Europe, a point recently hyped up by Poland’s Law and Justice Party before their landslide election victory in October.
A xenophobic grassroots movement called Patriots against the Islamisation of the West, or Pegida, has emerged in Dresden, spreading from its eastern roots into western areas of Germany, while the Eurosceptic and anti-immigration Alternative für Deutschland has crossed the ten per cent threshold in recent polls. Most notably, despite hate speech on racial grounds being firmly outlawed, social media networks, such as Facebook, are struggling under the heightened volumes of vociferous criticism that they carry. Initiatives by the German intelligence services to monitor the spread of such groups seem ill-prepared.
For Merkel, there seems to be a growing political backlash that thinks she may not be the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) ‘Chancellor candidate’ at the next general election in 2017. Talk of a fourth Merkel administration, common just several months ago, now seems improbable, by which time she will have long crossed the ten years in office that many commentators see as normative in Western democracies.
Winter may slow the flows as the seas roughen, giving Merkel greater scope to bed in a domestic set of solutions
Merkel’s instinctive reaction to the crisis was in accord with the generosity Europe once showed to fugitives from the former Eastern bloc, of which she was a former citizen. Yet from Britain’s Theresa May to a France fearful after major terrorist attacks at the beginning and end of 2015, there is widespread reluctance to follow Merkel’s lead. Even accommodative Sweden is showing strains as it struggles to cope with up to 190,000 refugees this year. A rift has also opened up between East and Central EU members who have no history of empire, decolonisation, or immigration, and those western European countries which have. They are also playing pass the refugee parcel with each other, as well as building border fences, for although the EU has the Frontex border agency, it does not police national borders.
There is a bullying aspect to this rift, as underlined when Dutch Finance Minister, Jeroen Dijsselbloem threatened to reduce Czech or Hungarian EU funding unless they took quotas of refugees. The inherent problem seems to be that Merkel’s government has lost control of the situation. Following the euphoria of their initial benevolence, German voters are increasingly faced with the challenges of assimilation. Even the Central Council of Jews has met with Merkel to express concerns over anti-Semitism growing with an increased number of Muslims in Europe. In France, large numbers of Jews have already left for Israel and many more intend to do so.
Merkel’s conciliatory overtures to the Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, over aiding Turkey’s entry into the EU in return for halting the refugee tide, have also created increased opposition to Merkel at home, not least because her own CDU party is opposed to Turkish membership. Turkey itself was increasingly chaotic ahead of Erdogan’s snap re-run of general elections, as he used domestic ethnic tensions to increase support for his ruling Law and Justice Party (AKP). Turkish accession to the EU is seen as too great a price for sorting out a flow of refugees that Erdogan may have exacerbated in the first place.
Winter may slow the flows as the seas roughen, giving Merkel greater scope to bed in a domestic set of solutions, as well as declaring the Western Balkans as safe for repatriated refugees. Germany could well have shown considerable foresight in reviving its ageing and infertile population with a vibrant influx. The Syrian middle class that has fled is notably well educated, but the influx is not just of Syrians. Yet this crisis looks to have become a turning point for Merkel, probably ending her domestic political career, although a big job such as the next UN Secretary General may beckon.
Schäuble made a veiled late-life bid for her job when he compared Merkel with a skier who blithely triggers an avalanche. Another man to watch, assuming the Grand Coalition endures, is SPD Foreign Minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the most popular politician in Germany. Meanwhile, the chaos of the Middle East and North Africa may get a lot worse, with more refugees set in motion, with the possibility that one civilisation (ours) has to deal with the collapse of another.