Mother Angela Merkel's Refugee Policy Divides Europe
Germans long knew their chancellor as a rational, deliberate decision maker. But in the refugee crisis, a new Merkel has emerged, driven by empathy. Increasingly, it is looking like the emotion-driven Merkel is prone to error. By SPIEGEL Staff
We can do it. That's the message Chancellor Angela Merkel has been giving her country ever since she pledged in late August to provide refuge to anyone coming from Syria in addition to others seeking protection from violence and warfare. The initial euphoria in the country was significant, with tens of thousands of everyday Germans joining the army of helpers to try and cope with the huge influx of needy refugees.
But there have since been signs that the initial elation is fading. The most obvious, of course, was Berlin's reintroduction of border controls on the German frontier with Austria a little over a week ago. But there have been others as well: Frustration in German states about insufficient federal assistance; grumbling within Merkel's party about her open door policy; and conflicts with the Social Democrats within Merkel's governing coalition.
Indeed, Germany is struggling to maintain its composure and to ward off panic despite all the rising doubts.
Can it be done?
Monday morning a week ago. Senior members of Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) are meeting to discuss the refugee situation. They talk about the Syrians and Afghans who are filling gymnasiums and moving into container villages that are springing up outdoors. The governors of Germany's 16 states report on shortcomings, from the lack of beds to the lack of doctors and teachers. For Merkel, it is but the bleeting of naysayers.
Merely describing reality and talking about feelings isn't enough, says Angela Merkel. "Those who bear the responsibility of being in government like we do have a different role. We have to provide the people with answers and solutions."
Can We Do It?
Courageous words, perhaps, but also a bit concerning. Can a report focusing on real conditions on the ground really be seen as an attack on the government line? May truths not be uttered just because they don't align with Merkel's indestructible optimism? As many as a million refugees will come to Germany this year. Can we do it?
Yes, Merkel says, of course we can. It was only three weeks ago that the chancellor said Germany was an amiable country -- and that people fleeing war and political persecution are welcome here. Such statements, free of tactic and calculation, are new for the chancellor.
Did Merkel miscalculate? Does she still have the situation under control?
The Merkel era began exactly 10 years ago, on Sept. 18, 2005, when she beat out Gerhard Schröder in the general election. It was the beginning of a chancellorship that was at first precarious. She didn't only have to defend herself against Schröder, who lectured her like a schoolchild on the evening that he lost the election, but also against the many enemies within her own ranks who were just waiting for the right moment to knock her off her pedestal.
But that moment never came. Merkel was an unlikely presence in German politics: a woman from East Germany in the male-dominated, West German CDU. Her secret weapon, though, was caution. She used it to shove aside all of her opponents. Only Merkel is left.
It is now being said that, after all those years of hesitation and procrastination, Merkel has finally found her issue with the refugees. But that is a rather one-dimensional approach. There is, in fact, much more at stake. Merkel is trying to transform Germany into a moral superpower in Europe. It is an aim that is not entirely free of hubris.
Despite periodic bouts of bluster, German chancellors have always strived for consensus in the EU. But Merkel has now embarked on her own special path. And when it comes to refugees, she's on her own, cursed by the Eastern Europeans and abandoned by the Brits. Neighboring Austria applauds politely, but the country is happy when the refugees continue on to Germany.
Within Merkel's own party, the mood is shifting. Many think she is slowly losing her grip on the situation. They believe she made a generous gesture, but now she is failing at administering the crisis. And there is some truth to that. After all, like Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière, she spent months blithely ignoring multitude warnings about the rising refugee numbers.
Merkel has long been one to respond to criticism with gentle conviction. But that sanguinity appears to be gone, replaced by gently irascible bluster. Last Tuesday, for example, when she said she would not apologize for Germany showing a friendly face -- because otherwise it "would not be my country" -- she was doing more than just rebuking her critics. It was an unveiled threat: If you don't follow me, you're going to have to look for a new chancellor.
What has gotten into Merkel? The Germans thought they knew their chancellor, whose popularity was largely attributable to her predictability and her at times tiring prudence. Now there is suddenly idealism flashing forth and the world isn't quite sure what to make of it.
Israel and the US are celebrating Merkel. The New York Times gave her a "bravo." Israeli historian Tom Segev says Germany is being "noble and commendable." Among Germany's European partners, however, the enthusiasm is much less effusive. And it's not only Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán who is openly rebelling against the Merkel approach.
Merkel's invitation to refugees, after all, wasn't just in Germany's name. She was effectively speaking for all of Europe -- her words put the onus for accepting all the refugees who heeded Merkel's call on the entire Continent. Europe is bursting at the seams and it's Merkel who is responsible.
Losing a Sense of Proportion
But Europe isn't interested in aligning itself with the German understanding of humanity. The British government can barely conceal its horror at Merkel's new course. Home Secretary Theresa May said last Wednesday that it was important to help people living in civil war-torn regions -- "not the ones who are strong and rich enough to come to Europe." She categorically rejected Merkel's plan to distribute refugees among European Union member states.
French President François Hollande, whom Merkel has made an ally in the refugee crisis, has kept his distance. Hollande said he wanted to take 1,000 refugees off Germany's hands. A paltry number, to say the least. But these days, Merkel should be grateful even for that. "We never raised unrealistic hopes," says one adviser to the French president.
German Interior Minister de Maizière is already in the process of altering Germany's approach to asylum-seekers. He plans to provide so-called "Dublin refugees" with a small "subsidy to cover the costs of unavoidable travel necessities" and deport them back to their first EU country of arrival. This doesn't fit the image of the merciful Merkel at all. Germany "cannot accept everyone who comes from a crisis region," says de Maizière.
Merkel's transformation is telling of the difference between politics that are good and politics that are right. The distinction is as old as political philosophy itself. German political philosopher Max Weber identified the distinction as being between the ethics of conviction and the ethics of responsibility. In other words, the difference between politics that are guided only by morals or by the likely consequences policies might produce.
What person with a heart would condemn a policy seeking to help refugees who make their way, children in tow, from Greece, through the Balkans and on to Germany? But where is the right balance between humanity and reality? And: Is it more important to save refugees or to save the EU, which itself embodies an answer to the horrors of war. A closer look at the drama of the last few weeks shows that Merkel has lost her sense of proportion.
Berlin, Tegel Airport, August 19
At 1 p.m. on this beautiful summer day, Merkel sets off to Brazil, joined by a large delegation. Before she makes her way to the plane, however, she speaks with Interior Minister de Maizière on the phone. He tells her about the rapidly rising number of refugees and says he plans to announce a new full-year forecast that afternoon, a figure that has been upwardly revised from 450,000 to 800,000.
Merkel is alarmed. The number 800,000 is significant -- large enough, in fact, to dominate the public discussion. And Merkel knows how fragile the situation is. On the one hand, the German economy is booming. In contrast to the early 1990s, when hundreds of thousands of refugees came to Germany from the Balkans, Germans aren't worried about their jobs. On the other hand, Merkel is all too familiar with the often irrational fears harbored by Germans. It has long been important to her that the government not do anything that might inflame the situation further. And she is confident that the CSU won't add fuel to the fire. The Bavarians, she believes, know exactly where the line to right-wing populism lies.
Merkel, though, is still unsure of how to tackle the crisis. The calls for the chancellor to visit a refugee hostel are growing louder, but she doesn't want to show up empty-handed. A political leader must offer solutions and not just complain about the circumstances, she says. It is a sentence that will come up often in the next few weeks.
Nuremberg, Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, August 21
Angelika Wenzl, a senior official at Germany's Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, writes a momentous paper bearing the reference number 411-93605/Syria/2015. It states that the elaborate Dublin procedures will be suspended for refugees from Syria. That means that whoever makes it to Germany from the civil war-town country will no longer be sent away, even if another EU country is technically responsible for them. The memo, never meant to go public, was supposed to provide some bureaucratic relief.
But once Wenzl's message ends up in the inbox of the aid organization Pro Asyl, it's not long before it goes up on their English website. Any doubts about the document's authenticity were brushed aside by the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees on August 25. At 1:30 p.m., the Nuremberg-based agency's social media team tweets: "We are at present largely no longer enforcing Dublin procedures for Syrian citizens." Most of the time, the federal agency's tweets only get shared three or four times. This particular tweet, however, gets retweeted 156 times. Even the BBC picks up on it. One Twitter user asks whether the new guideline only applies to Syrians who were already in the country. The organization replies that the decision is not pegged to any specific date of entry.
In Berlin, the Interior Ministry goes into damage-control mode. "But that's not a legally binding act, so to speak -- no requirement, no suspension of Dublin -- it's much more a guideline for administrators," a stammering Thomas de Maizière tells journalists. But word has long gotten out to the world. The British daily Independent runs the headline, "Germany opens its gates." Syrians post pictures of Angela Merkel to Facebook emblazoned with the words, "Wir lieben dich," or "We love you."
Heidenau, Hauptstrasse 10, August 26
As Merkel's motorcade rolls onto the parking lot of the former Praktiker DIY store in Heidenau, two groups of people are waiting for her. One is quiet, the other is furious. The quiet one is made up of refugees and their helpers. The other is comprised of irate Heidenau natives. Merkel winces as she hears the cries. "Traitor!" some roar, along with: "We are the pack!" Merkel looks confused, then she waves because that's what she's used to doing, and disappears behind a barricade.
The choice to visit Heidenau is a response to the violent clashes between right-wing marchers and police in front of a newly opened refugee hostel on August 21 and 22. It was an incident that made global headlines and Merkel is eager to show a different face of Germany.
She tours the new refugee accommodation for more than an hour. Outside it's hot, with the sun beating down on the crowd, and the mood heats up as well. As Merkel reappears, the noise becomes deafening. Horns are blown and one woman yells in a shrill voice, "You cunt! Get back in your ugly car!"
For days to follow, Merkel's people continue to speak of their astonishment at the lynch-mob atmosphere in Heidenau. As chancellor, they say, Merkel is used to insults. But what should the people do who are out to help the refugees? They don't have bodyguards, yet they still must face "the pack." At the Chancellery, the belief solidifies that Merkel must set an example.
Merkel has never had sympathy for the far-right. In 2003, she ejected Martin Hohmann from the conservatives' parliamentary group because he had played upon anti-Semitic clichés in a speech. Over the years, Merkel's position has become more entrenched. In internal discussions, she has rejected any attempts to posit a psychological explanation for far-right extremism in Germany's East. She has no understanding for it whatsoever.
Vienna, Hofburg, August 27
Merkel is in town for a conference on the Western Balkans. Right in the middle of the meeting, news arrives of a truck parked on the A4 autobahn near Vienna containing dozens of suffocated refugees. Merkel goes before the press and says: "We are all appalled at this horrifying news."
Berlin, Federal Press Conference building, August 31
Merkel gives her annual press conference in front of the Berlin press corps. But this time, it isn't just a routine appearance. The word "proud" comes up often in her comments. She is "proud" of the humanity displayed in the German constitution and she is "proud" of the many Germans who are helping the refugees. "The world sees Germany as a country of hope and opportunity," she says. It quickly becomes clear that she wants to send a clear message: Those who are oppressed and those who are fleeing from a civil war are welcome. It won't be easy, she says, but "we can do it."
They are the kind of sentences that have never before been spoken by a chancellor. She is inviting Germans to follow their hearts rather than their interests; she is asking them to invest their energy and money into the reception of refugees. The chancellor gave an oath to devote herself to the good of the German people, but she is now risking her entire political capital for Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans who are in need of help.
Merkel has made risky decisions in the past. In December 1999, for example, she wrote a letter to the influential German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung saying it was time for a leadership change in the Christian Democratic Union. The party's head, Helmut Kohl, had become enmeshed in a party donation scandal and Merkel's letter served as the coup de grâce. Another came in 2011, when she rapidly sounded the death knell of nuclear energy in Germany in the aftermath of the Fukushima meltdown in Japan.
But those decisions were driven by fear. Merkel didn't want to be dragged into the donation scandal that ultimately slowed or ended the careers of several top CDU politicians, so she distanced herself from Kohl. And the "Energiewende" -- Germany's shift away from nuclear and toward renewables -- went so quickly because Merkel was afraid that the CDU could lose support as a result of the Fukushima catastrophe.
It is difficult to say what prompted Merkel, long seen as a sober practitioner of realpolitik, to become the refugee chancellor -- or, as some conservatives call her, "Mutti Teresa," a sharp-tongued reference to her nickname in Germany: Mutti.
Merkel's people vehemently reject the psychological explanations that are currently being posited in German newspapers. One theory, for example, holds that Merkel, who has no children of her own, was deeply moved by the crying refugee girl she encountered during a town meeting in Rostock.
Emotion in politics is dangerous. Those who gain a reputation for being guided by their feelings are seen as being open to manipulation. Still, there are several indications that Merkel's refugee policy is driven more by her sentiment than she is willing to admit. One person who has known her for a long time says that it really did get to her that, during the Grexit crisis, she was portrayed as the second coming of the Nazis. Plus, her popularity gives her plenty of leeway. Not unlike the super-rich, she is at a moment in her chancellorship when she can spend political capital on things that don't turn a profit.
Luxembourg, European Convention Center, September 4
The situation in Hungary is becoming serious. Thousands of people are surging toward the border and refugees begin breaking out of the camp at Röszke, near the Serbian border. Meanwhile, 2,000 refugees stranded in Budapest begin making their way on foot to Austria. They walk along a highway as cars speed past.
In Luxembourg, EU foreign ministers have gathered for a meeting and Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz takes his German counterpart, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, aside. The conditions in Hungary are catastrophic, he says, and Germany and Austria must act.
Steinmeier calls the chancellor, who is at a CDU anniversary event in Cologne with 500 guests. Merkel makes them wait for an hour. After the celebration, she speaks with Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann, German Interior Minister de Maizière and again with Steinmeier. Then, she makes her decision: The refugees will be brought to Germany in special trains.
Officially, no German ministry is opposed to the decision, but ministerial experts nevertheless issue strong warnings. Officials in both the Interior Ministry and the Foreign Ministry warn that the decision will attract even more refugees to come to Germany.
Merkel doesn't care. She is more concerned about Europe's reputation. What kind of message would it send if images went around the world showing elderly refugees and pregnant women collapsing in exhaustion while marching to Germany?
At 11:30 p.m., Merkel's office tries to reach Horst Seehofer, the powerful governor of Bavaria and head of the Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party to the CDU. But the CSU boss is on vacation and has turned off his phone's ringer. Maybe he didn't hear the call; maybe he didn't want to hear the call. In urgent situations, Seehofer can always be reached by way of his bodyguards. But Merkel doesn't make the effort. She has already made up her mind anyway.
Consistent with protocol, however, Chancellery Chief of Staff Peter Altmaier calls Seehofer's chief of staff, Karolina Gernbauer, a short time later. Gernbauer sends Seehofer a text message, which he also doesn't see right away. But the message is how he learns of Merkel's decision the next morning.
Munich, September 5
At 4 p.m. on Saturday, top CSU politicians receive a text message saying "important appointment." They are asked to join a telephone conference at 6 p.m. to "vote on a joint position." Seehofer reports that the chancellor has unfortunately unilaterally "decided in favor of a vision of a different Germany." Seehofer, it is clear to all of those in the meeting, hopes to derive political capital from the refugee issue. His message: Merkel wants to turn Germany into a vast refugee hostel.
Merkel would have loved to have kept the issue out of the political debate. But now, that is no longer possible. In contrast to the chancellor, Seehofer has no political capital to give away. His last significant political defeat, the failure of his plans to implement a highway toll system, is still fresh. It was a mistake for Merkel to believe that the CSU would be able to withstand the temptations of populism. Bavarian Interior Minister Joachim Herrmann tells journalists after the meeting that Merkel's decision "sends exactly the wrong message within Europe."
Berlin, Chancellery, September 7
Merkel and her vice chancellor, Social Democratic Party head Sigmar Gabriel, report to the press about the results of their refugee crisis meeting. A reporter asks Merkel what it feels like to be the face of friendly Germany in the world.
It is a seductive question as it is aimed at Merkel's vanity, but she could easily have brushed it aside with a couple of sound bites. Instead, she says: "I am happy that Germany too has become a country that gives many people hope outside of Germany. And if you look at our history, that is something of tremendous value. So, I definitely do find it moving."
Berlin, Interior Ministry, September 12
The numbers that are now arriving daily on de Maizière's desk are becoming dramatic. Some 40,000 new arrivals are forecast for the weekend alone. German states are insisting that they can't take any more.
De Maizière sets up a conference call with conservative state interior ministers and, after about 15 minutes, Bavarian Interior Minister Herrmann takes the floor. The influx has gotten out of control, he says. "From my perspective, only the temporary introduction of border controls can help. The situation is so critical that we won't violate the Schengen Code by doing so." The Schengen agreement allows members states to introduce border controls in crisis situations for an initial period of 30 days.
De Maizière says that Germany's federal police force would need seven hours' notice to take such a step. At that moment, it becomes clear to everyone that the minister has already thought about introducing border controls. "Is anyone in this meeting against it?" asks Herrmann. Nobody says anything. Lorenz Caffier, the interior minister of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, proposes an emergency conference of all interior ministers to discuss the idea of border controls with their counterparts from the Social Democrats. Herrmann rejects the proposal. It would, he said, be counterproductive to exert public pressure on the chancellor.
De Maiziére promises to tell the chancellor about the group's discussion. Herrmann, for his part, immediately calls Seehofer to urge him to pressure Merkel. At 1:26 p.m., Seehofer sends a text message to the chancellor, ending with the words: "I can only urgently ask you to act in accordance with the severity of the situation."
At the same time, the leadership of the SPD meets. Gabriel has already been informed of the changing sentiment within the CDU. He complains: "From the very beginning, I didn't trust the euphoria." The SPD is concerned that the message just sent out about Germany's openness will be immediately countermanded. But Gabriel ensures that the Social Democrats support the decision made by the conservative interior ministers. A tele-conference is set up for 5:30 p.m. for leaders of parties belonging to Merkel's governing coalition. Merkel, Gabriel, Seehofer and several federal ministers join the call. At the end, it is clear: border controls will be introduced.
It is a paradoxical situation: Merkel wanted to show Europe as a paragon of humanity, but now, the rule which, more than any other, stands for European freedom, is being suspended. Across the Continent, border controls are quickly reestablished.
Berlin, SPD Party Headquarters, September 15
SPD party head Gabriel meets with the governors of SPD-led states to prepare for a meeting with Merkel that evening and the SPD governors complain about the federal government's inadequate crisis management. "Why was there no information?" they grumble. "Why are we only talking now about money? Our municipalities can't take it anymore." Party head Gabriel is irritated. He doesn't want refugees to become an issue of conflictual between the SPD and Merkel's conservatives. He defends Merkel and says: "I don't know either." Gabriel is now closer to the chancellor than she is to her own party allies.
Berlin, Chancellery, September 15
At 6:30 p.m., Germany's state governors meet with Merkel. The chancellor has brought along Interior Minister de Maizière and Chief of Staff Altmaier. Gabriel is there as well.
Merkel tries to loosen things up with a joke. She learned from Seehofer, she says, that warm words and slogans don't really help. There is laughter, but the debate that follows is nonetheless unpleasant and the meeting quickly becomes bogged down in a disagreement centering on money and distribution quotas.
Because Gabriel has made it clear that the SPD governors are to go easy on Merkel, they focus their ire on Interior Minister de Maizière, who is already the object of intense critique. De Maizière explains what he has in mind when it comes to helping the German states and says that capacity for 40,000 asylum-seekers will be made available. But when he begins to list unused police stations and empty military barracks, the governors quickly interject. "They are already full," they say. The chancellor says: "Looks like that will have to be reevaluated by next week."
When the governors issue a demand for the Federal Interior Ministry to finally take over responsibility for the distribution of the refugees, de Maizière initially balks. The federal government, he says, has no jurisdiction over the issue.
Some shake their heads. It's not about questions of responsibility, they say, but about concrete assistance. Ultimately, de Maiziére gives in: "Okay, then we'll start on Monday." But by then, Seehofer says, Oktoberfest will have begun. It's too late. Merkel intervenes and says: "Okay, we'll do so starting tomorrow."
In the end, the meeting participants agree on creating space for 40,000 asylum-seekers. Seehofer, though, warns that this shouldn't be understood by the refugees as an invitation. "We can't create the impression that, because we have created 40,000 spaces, they must be filled," he says. Merkel promises that it is only about relieving pressure on the states, which is what she also says in the press conference later.
The meeting in the Chancellery reveals Merkel's weaknesses in the refugee crisis. Normally, Merkel shies away from symbolic action and prefers immersing herself in the details. This time, though, the opposite is the case. How the country should handle the huge numbers of new arrivals is completely unclear.
In Search of a Better Life
Can we do it? One thing is certain: Merkel underestimated the inviting power of her words and how attracted people would be to come to Germany in search of a better life.
But the refugee crisis has also changed Germany's image in the world. Suddenly, it is no longer burning asylum hostels and chanting neo-Nazis that are dominating the headlines. Rather, it is people welcoming refugees at German train stations with water and pretzels.
There are many who are now looking at Germany full of admiration, liberal America first and foremost. "Germany's road to redemption shines amid Europe's refugee debate," was the headline on a Washington Post op-ed written by Fareed Zakaria, one of the best known commentators in the US.
But among Germany's neighbors, Merkel's policies could also provide a significant boost to right-wing populist parties. In both France and Austria, the right wing has developed into a significant threat to governing parties. The right-wing Freedom Party of Austria leads the public opinion polls in the country at the moment while in France, it is far from impossible that Front National leader Marine Le Pen will become the country's next president.
One of the lessons from the euro crisis was that there is no longer such a thing as domestic policy in Europe. When the economy stagnates in France and pensions climb in Greece, it has consequences for everyone. The same is now true of Merkel's refugee policy. When she says that Germany's right to asylum has no upper limit, train stations in Vienna and Salzburg fill up and Hungary moves to build a razor-wire fence on its border with Serbia.
Merkel hopes that altruism can be infectious and that no European country can afford to continue standing by as refugees drown in the Mediterranean. Merkel has transformed the refugees into a gigantic political drama and has declared the crisis to be existential for the European Union. That was a mistake. Europe can't be allowed to break apart just because agreement can't be reached on the distribution of refugees.
A Small, Ugly Compromise
Merkel, of course, knows that, which is why her position has taken on an air of insolence. On Wednesday, European leaders will head to Brussels for a meeting to discuss the situation.
Indications are that a small, ugly compromise will emerge. It will encompass razor-wire fences, registration centers on Europe's external borders and money for countries like Lebanon and Turkey so that they might prevent refugees from heading westward in the first place.
And there will be a debate about Germany's basic right to asylum. Merkel says that one of the greatest challenges facing Europe in the coming years is that of agreeing on a unified, European right to asylum. But how should such a right look when countries like Hungary and the Czech Republic see providing shelter as little more than an act of mercy? Just as Germany was not able to create the euro in the exact image of the deutsche mark, Berlin will not be able to export its precise moral vision to the rest of Europe.
Still, Merkel's brief summer of humaneness was not in vain. It shamed politicians whose first reflex was to explain why help, once again, could not be extended. It showed that it is possible to break with political routine and it encouraged all those Germans who, absent instruction and invitation, followed their human instincts and welcomed the refugees.
That will remain. It made an impression far beyond Germany's borders, also in countries that have reason to look at Germany with some degree of skepticism. Born of the Holocaust, Israel was created as a guarantee that Jews would never again have to travel around the world in the search of protection from their oppressors and murderers. But now, a debate has erupted there too as to whether the country has an obligation to take in Syrians, regardless of their religion. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has thus far categorically rejected the idea. But the Jewish historian Segev says: "We should learn from the Germans how to treat refugees."
By Nicola Abé, Melanie Amann, Hubert Gude, Peter Müller, Ralf Neukirch, René Pfister, Barbara Schmid, Christoph Schult, Holger Stark and Wolf Wiedmann-Schmidt