The Lonely Chancellor Merkel Under Fire as Refugee Crisis Worsens
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? By SPIEGEL Staff
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.
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.
There is indeed much that is no longer working. The federal government has still not made the 40,000 emergency beds available that it promised back in September during an emergency summit at the Chancellery. Furthermore, underage migrants are often put on trains unaccompanied and sent across the country. And it still often takes more than six months before refugees can even file their applications for asylum.
"We are managing the situation only with great difficulty," Warncke says. He says he has been unable to find someone in the area who speaks Arabic and that they only have one translator for Turkish and one for Kurdish. "At the beginning, we could hardly communicate with the people. Luckily, some of the first refugees who came to us have managed to learn a bit of German and can help out as interpreters."
The chancellor is fully aware of the difficulties encountered on the local level and she knows about the lack of sufficient shelters, of interpreters and of judges who can make decisions on individual asylum cases. But she doesn't have a solution for quickly easing the mounting pressures. And one reason for that is that Merkel, long renowned for keeping her cards close to her chest, has been unprecedentedly explicit about where she stands on the refugee crisis. Essentially, she views the crisis through the prism of two questions: Can Germany reduce the number of arriving refugees by way of national legislation? And: Should the government say that there is a limit to Germany's capacity? She has clearly and explicitly answered both questions in the negative.
Merkel believes it is impossible for Germany to seal off its borders. For her, the erection of a fence would not just be ineffectual, but would also represent the end of the European ideal. Having grown up in communist East Germany, she is from a country that cut itself off with walls and barbed wire -- and she doesn't want to relive the experience. She views all other proposals that have been made as mere political posturing.
That also explains why she has stubbornly avoided establishing a maximum number of refugees that Germany can accept, as her nominal political ally Horst Seehofer has repeatedly demanded. How high, after all, should such a maximum be? And how can it be enforced? Merkel doesn't believe that there is a satisfactory answer to such questions. It may be that Germans want her to establish a limit to the burden Germany can accept. But it would be politically dangerous for Merkel to identify a maximum that couldn't be adhered to. That is her view of the situation.
It would be inaccurate to say that Merkel is alone in her view of the situation. Chancellery Chief of Staff Peter Altmaier has long been among her closest confidants and he unconditionally supports her position on the refugee crisis. Indeed, she recently named Altmaier as her refugee coordinator.
Chancellery Chief of Staff Peter Altmaier remains a staunch supporter of Merkel's refugee policies.
For another, though, Altmaier is an unshakable optimist and studiously avoids the kind of alarmism many in his party propagate -- largely because he has long had a different approach to the issue of immigration than most others in his party. At the end of former Chancellor Helmut Kohl's term in office, Altmaier -- who was a young CDU parliamentarian at the time -- joined with a handful of other young conservatives in an effort to change the party's approach to immigration. At the time, it was a viewpoint that placed him and Merkel at the fringes of the party. Things have changed since then, but the party is still largely mistrustful of immigration and fearful that German culture could be overwhelmed. Altmaier has no understanding for such worries.
As a result, he defines Germany's refugee capacity differently than do most CDU members. Germany, he is convinced, is a rich country and can find a solution to the logistical problem it is facing and can integrate even more refugees. Of course, the numbers of new arrivals will change the country, but that doesn't scare Altmaier in the slightest.
It is possible, of course, that Altmaier overestimates Germans, but he is right when he points out that his fellow countrymen are not unmoved by the fate of the refugees. "The incidents this spring clearly showed that Europe cannot tolerate seeing people in need drowning," he said.
Still, Altmaier knows, as does Merkel, that they can't simply ignore the building pressure and the growing skepticism of her political path -- which is why they are open to finding a compromise with the CSU, such as entering into negotiations with the SPD over so-called transit-zones. The idea is that of establishing zones on the margins of Europe where refugees can be sheltered and asylum requests can be processed before approved asylum applicants are distributed throughout Europe. Neither Merkel nor Altmaier believe such negotiations will amount to much, but they are eager to show that they are willing to seek middle ground.
Things are moving elsewhere as well. The Chancellery, for example, agrees with the Interior Minister's proposal of sending back rejected asylum-seekers from Afghanistan. A Chancellery source said that the extension of Germany's military engagement in Afghanistan could be used to establish safe zones, allowing for the return of asylum seekers.
Another issue of dispute among German conservatives is that of allowing refugees to send for their families once they have received asylum status. And that problem could ultimately be resolved by the mere passage of time. At the moment, for example, there are so many asylum applications outstanding that the number of applications for family reunification remains low.
Still, despite the concessions Merkel has thus far made, she remains unmovable when it comes to her central convictions. She refuses to define a maximum number of refugees that Germany can accept and she refuses to consider the construction of a border fence.
As such, Seehofer isn't likely to back down. His quibbles, after all, aren't with certain elements of Merkel's refugee policy. He disagrees with her approach in its entirety and insists that Berlin place a cap on the number of people the country can take in.
He also faces tremendous pressure in his home-state of Bavaria. Located on the border with Austria, the state has borne the brunt of the refugee crisis and for weeks, mayors, municipal politicians and volunteers have been complaining that they have reached their limit. The atmosphere within the CSU's state parliamentary fraction has become pre-revolutionary. Seehofer cannot afford the kind of equanimity that characterizes Altmaier.
Under Attack from an Ally
Instead, he has spent the past several weeks launching attack after attack against Merkel. He has said, for example, that Merkel's decision to take in the refugees trapped in Hungary is a choice "that will occupy us for quite some time to come." And he invited Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who built a fence on his country's southern border to keep the refugees out, to a party event in Bavaria.
Bavarian State Premier Horst Seehofer (right) invited Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán (left) to speak in Bavaria in September, thumbing his nose at Chancellor Merkel.
Merkel is concerned about losing support should she be unable to live up to promises she has made. Seehofer is convinced that voters will turn their backs on the conservatives if they get the feeling that their worries aren't being taken seriously. But Seehofer also didn't believe that Merkel would remain so stubborn in her refusal to set an upper limit, which partially explains why he allowed the quarrel to escalate. At the beginning of October, he threatened "emergency defense" measures should Merkel not change course.
A few days ago, a new implicit threat emerged when Seehofer declined to deny reports that the CSU could pull its ministers out of Merkel's government. The CSU currently holds three seats on Merkel's cabinet. And he has also opened yet another new front recently in the battle against Merkel. If Berlin continues to refuse establishing an upper limit, Seehofer said, his party may file a complaint with Germany's Constitutional Court.
The fierce battle between Merkel's CDU and Seehofer's CSU is harmful to both sides. While the CDU's public approval ratings have fallen, so too have those of the CSU. The party now stands at 43 percent, roughly 5 percentage points fewer than when Bavarian voters last went to the polls two years ago. And for the CSU, winning the absolute majority in state elections is really the only thing that counts.
Unleashing a Genie
That's also one of the reasons Seehofer is putting up such a desperate fight, though at this point, he would likely be satisfied with even just a small gesture. "The words upper limit don't necessarily have to be uttered," says a person close to the party boss. "Merkel could also say that she will do all she can to ensure that the influx doesn't continue the way it has."
But it's unlikely Merkel will even agree to that -- raising the possibility that Seehofer has unleashed a genie that he will no longer be able to shove back into the bottle. The longer Merkel ignores the CSU's increasingly insistent demands, the greater the possibility that the Bavarian party will lose credibility. To avoid that eventuality, Seehofer will ultimately have to follow up his bluster with action.
But what happens if Merkel doesn't yield? Bavaria, after all, cannot simply close its borders.
"The chancellor cannot just single handedly dictate the path. Instead we need to work together and agree on how the course is set politically," said Hans-Peter-Friedrich, deputy head of the joint parliamentary group of the CSU and Merkel's CDU. "Anything else would be in violation of the agreement governing our group," he says, adding that nobody wants to revoke these working agreements. But the former German interior minister also quietly conveyed the threat of doing just that. "In terms of Seehofer, I consider anything to be conceivable at the moment," says one member of the CDU's national party executive.
Trouble is also brewing within Merkel's own party. On Wednesday night, a county chapter of Merkel's party held a town hall meeting focused on the issue of refugees at an inn in the town of Bopfingen in the southern state of Baden-Württemberg, a heartland of CDU voters. Some 50 residents met in a back room with three CDU politicians. The mood was far from positive.
Thomas Trautwein, the head of the city chapter of the party, accused the chancellor of having sent a welcoming message around the entire world. "It's no longer possible to bring things under control again," he said. Winfried Mack, a member of the state parliament representing the town said, "The right to asylum is not there for us to take in entire peoples." Finally, Gunter Bühler, the mayor, said, "It's my opinion that we are not going to be able to tackle this as easily as the chancellor says."
Then it was the audience's turn to speak. "Our chancellor has been pursuing policies that I would have expected from the left," said the first, noting that Merkel eliminated Germany's mandatory military conscription, she ordered the closure of the country's nuclear power plants and she made concessions to Greece in the debt crisis. And now? "Now she's even threatening to divide Europe."
"We will not, at the bottom, be able to solve the problems created at the top," complained another. Then a third asked, "Does the chancellor even remember what's in the oath she took?" Yes, parliamentarian Mack said, defending his party boss before then slightly distancing himself from her. "I personally wouldn't have done that with the selfies (which Merkel took together with refugees), there was a certain amount of clumsiness in it." At this point you could hear people muttering the word "stupidity."
At a protest on Oct. 10 held by the Alternative for Germany, a right-wing populist party, in Freilassing, the a border city where many of the thousands of refugees are arriving, a demonstrator held up a sign reading: "That is not my chancellor."
In the Saxony chapter, general secretary Michael Kretschmer resorts to carefully selected euphemisms to describe the situation, saying, "The voice of the people is of course very present." That's one way of describing it. At a protest in the town of Schkeuditz near Leipzig, a CDU member could recently be seen holding up a placard reading, "Dethrone Merkel."
Christian Hartmann, the head of the party in the populous city of Dresden, said that his local chapter is divided. Some members have joined up with the right-wing populist Pegida movement, whereas others are attending the counter-protests. But, he adds, "The skepticism as to whether the political policies pursued thus far can be successful is gaining the upper hand. The general feeling is that we are structurally and organizationally overstretched."
Take the state of Hesse, for example, where the state chapter of the CDU is also comparably conservative. "Of course many of our supporters and members are unsettled," says Elmar Bociek, who is running to become mayor next Sunday in the town of Sulzbach. During his campaign, he says, he has gone from door to door and the first issue on the tongues of people in most of the homes he visits is that of the refugees.
Bociek is one of 34 CDU politicians at the municipal level who joined together four weeks ago to send an open letter to the chancellor in which they described "major concern for the future of our country." By disassociating himself from the chancellor's policies, Bociek has helped his campaign.
"The people are already noticing that we have a different party base here than the national party," the local politician says. He believes the protests are starting to have an effect. With negotiations with Turkey, new asylum decisions and an initiative to secure better cooperation in Europe, it appears Merkel is starting to take action.
Protesters with the Alternative for Germany Party at a demonstration in Berlin on Saturday hold up signs with slogans like, "Clear rules are needed for immigration," "Limit immigration" or "Mrs. Merkel, this isn't your country! Resign!"
But how will the party run against Winfried Kretschmann, the state's Green Party governor, when he is constantly praising the chancellor for her handling of the refugee issue? Party leaders in the state, under the leadership of Thomas Strobl, who is also a member of the national committee, are waffling. "The CDU Baden-Württemberg supports our chancellor," Strobl claims, even if people "are of a different opinion when it comes to one issue or the other."
Such protestations of loyalty, however, are often indicators of deeper discontent. And there are open voices against the chancellor's policies in the state as well. Nikolas Löbel, a young CDU leader in the state, is calling for a "temporary stop to the acceptance of additional refugees and asylum-seekers." Otherwise Germany threatens to be "infiltrated."
District CDU chair Thomas Bareiss, who is also a member of the federal parliament, demonstrated his rejection of Merkel's policies in his choice of a keynote speaker. He invited Zoltán Balong, Hungary's education minister, to speak at a recent local party event. "With our fence, we are also protecting Germany's border," said the close confidante to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.
Merkel herself is expected to make nine appearances during the election campaign in Baden-Württemberg. When she does, she will find a party that is torn -- because although the number of her fans in the state has shrunk, they have not disappeared. In mid-October, 26 mayors and 10 members of the state parliament, signed a letter stating that they support her "clear position" and her "endurance."
But in eastern German states, the image is clear. "The mood in the CDU in Saxony is similar to that of the CSU," says Matthias Rössler, the CDU president of the state parliament. On Nov. 14, the state chapter will be holding its own party conference. As their guest speaker, they have invited Horst Seehofer, the man who himself recently invited Orbán.
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.
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.
By Melanie Amann, Matthias Bartsch, Jan Friedmann, Konstantin von Hammerstein, Björn Hengst, Horand Knaup, Ralf Neukirch, Michael Sauga and Steffen Winter