Trapped in the Past Increasing Headwinds for Angela Merkel
Just a few months ago, German Chancellor Angela Merkel was being described as the new leader of the free world. But recently she has been having trouble getting her way even in Berlin and Europe. Her days of dominance appear to be over. By DER SPIEGEL Staff
The meeting was so urgent the ministers even skipped the Social Democrats' traditional asparagus feast at Berlin's Wannsee lake. Shortly before 8 p.m., Finance Minister Olaf Scholz and Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, both from the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), arrived at the Chancellery. Chancellor Angela Merkel had called the secret meeting to speak with leaders of her coalition government about the state of the world.
For more than four hours, Merkel conferred with Scholz, Maas, Interior Minister Horst Seehofer and Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen. To begin the session, participants reported on their most recent trips abroad: Maas described his journey to Ukraine and Moscow, Scholz spoke of the G-7 finance minister meeting in Canada and Merkel reported on her meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing.
They sketched a threatening image of the world. Trump's attacks on free trade, China's efforts to become a global power, an unstable Ukraine. No progress was being made in Syria. And when it came to Iran, the United States wasn't budging an inch.
At the end of the meeting, participants arrived at the rather unoriginal conclusion that Germany's only chance was Europe. "If we aren't able to pull the Continent together now," a participant said, "we will be torn apart."
It isn't clear if there were any concrete results from the late-night meeting. But the foreign policy horror scenarios represent only a part of the difficulties currently facing Angela Merkel in the 13th year of her tenure. As the global order collapses, Germany is again focusing on the refugee crisis - and the SPD, Merkel's junior coalition partner, is losing public support so rapidly that it could become a significant problem for Merkel and her government.
For six months after the federal elections last September, Germany had to make do with a caretaker government under the assumption that Germany and its chancellor would return to the world stage once a coalition had been forged.
Yet almost three months after Merkel took her fourth oath of office in German parliament, she still hasn't found her way back to her past strength. The slow, difficult process of putting together a government has weakened her domestically and abroad. Now, she seems like a chancellor on the way out. And any politician who has been in power for an extended period has had plenty of time to collect numerous political enemies.
Merkel's leadership is currently being questioned on all sides, with adversaries and potential rivals flooding out of the woodwork. U.S. President Donald Trump is seeking to rein in Germany's economic power, French President Emmanuel Macron is backing her into a corner with his vision of a reformed Europe and back home, the SPD is hardly able to focus on governing, as concerned as it is about its own survival. On Wednesday in parliament, when Merkel took questions from German lawmakers, the Social Democrats were more aggressive in their stance toward the chancellor than some members of the opposition.
A Prisoner of Her Past
On refugee policy, conservatives and populists in Europe are forming an anti-Merkel alliance. And on EU reform, the Social Democrats look to be forming a partnership with Macron in opposition to the chancellor. In a new interview with DER SPIEGEL, Finance Minister Scholz makes it clear that he wants to augment Merkel's EU plan with projects that have little support among the chancellor's conservatives: a new EU tax and additional social-welfare projects.
Merkel's favored strategy of waiting and watching seems to have outlived its usefulness. Her ability to take into account the interests of all and to forge a compromise no longer works because she no longer has the elbow room she once did: In Berlin, she is trapped in the coalition with the SPD; in Brussels, she is hemmed in by incompatible interests; and on refugee policy, she is a prisoner of her own past.
When it comes to the EU, the ghosts of her past are likewise catching up to her. Germany is still the most powerful country in the EU, but it is also a country that finds itself squarely in the sights of Donald Trump. Now that Germany might have to rely on the solidarity of its European partners, the schoolmarm role Berlin played during the euro crisis could come back to haunt it.
Trump has identified Merkel as one of his primary adversaries on the world stage. He watched as she got the better of one male world leader after the other - and he wants to put an end to it. He is no longer willing to provide the discounted security that he believes Germany continues to enjoy thanks to America's military might. He wants to slow down Germany's export machine and dictate to Berlin from whom it should purchase its natural gas. And Merkel still has not found a way to dissuade Trump from pursuing his crusade.
For the time being, the EU's disgust with Trump outweighs its displeasure with Germany. But derision of the Germans can be heard with increasing frequency in Brussels. Many EU partners have taken note of the fact that Trump's fight against Germany's trade surplus mirrors their own criticism of Berlin's trade practices. "It is now becoming apparent that Trump could ultimately find more success than the years of criticism of Germany's surplus from within the EU," says on EU diplomat. "Schadenfreude is certainly part of it," says a European parliamentarian.
For the time being, it is nothing but mumbling. But it shows that Merkel is slowly losing control of the European debate.
And then there is Trump's new representative in Berlin: U.S. Ambassador Richard Grenell, who enjoys close ties to both the U.S. president and to National Security Advisor John Bolton. Grenell recently told the far-right website Breitbart that he wants to "empower" right-wing conservatives in Germany and in Europe.
He apparently views his mission as that of emulating Trump and challenging the political establishment here in Germany. And of strengthening the "conservatives," whom he believes make up the silent majority. It seems unlikely that he was referring to Angela Merkel.
Last Sunday afternoon, the American ambassador met with a number of young members of Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU). The gathering was part of the "Future Factory" format that Jens Spahn, Merkel's chief conservative adversary within the CDU, hosts. Grenell told the politicians how he views Germany: As in the U.S. prior to Trump's election victory, he sees a conservative "silent majority" that is slowly finding its political voice. At the end of the meeting, he added a personal message: "I am very happy that Jens and Daniel are here in Berlin. You make the start so much easier." He was referring to Spahn, who is Merkel's health minister, and Spahn's husband.
The CDU's youth wing is enthusiastic about Trump's man in Berlin. One meeting-participant from the state of Thuringia even pulled a red "Make America Great Again" cap out of his bag and asked the ambassador to have it autographed by Trump. "No problem," Grenell promised.
Spahn's closeness with Grenell is no secret. On the contrary, the two have been celebrating their friendship over the past several weeks on Twitter. Grenell has hosted Spahn for dinner at the ambassador's residence and Spahn has given Grenell a personal tour of the Reichstag. After the tour, Grenell tweeted out a picture of the two of them smiling broadly. "No better way to see the Bundestag than with a Member of Parliament. Thanks, @jensspahn!" the U.S. ambassador wrote.
For Merkel, Spahn's foray into foreign relations is beyond aggravating. If Grenell is the gateway to access to the Trump administration, then it is her adversary Spahn who holds the keys. No other member of German government or CDU member has such a personal connection to the U.S. ambassador - neither Merkel's foreign policy adviser Jan Hecker nor Peter Beyer, the government's coordinator for trans-Atlantic relations.
'Dinner with Friends'
Those close to Spahn say the CDU politician has known Grenell for around three years and that they have a lot in common, both politically and privately. Both are conservative, both are "critical of Islam" and both are gay. "Dinner with friends. Welcome to Berlin," reads a recent tweet from Spahn's husband Daniel Funke, who is the head of the Berlin bureau of Bunte, the gossip magazine. Attached to the tweet was a picture of the four friends complete with Grenell's dog Lola. "We always love hanging with you two," Grenell replied.
Funke recently used his connection to land a long interview with the U.S. ambassador in his magazine. Grenell, for his part, is said to have helped Spahn arrange meetings with the powers that be in Washington, such as Trump's former top adviser and far-right ideologue Stephen Bannon.
Another member of the network of young conservatives is Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, whom Grenell intends to host for lunch during Kurz's visit to Berlin next week. "Doesn't the Austrian chancellor have an American ambassador at home he could meet with?" Volker Kauder, conservative floor leader in German parliament, apparently complained.
Merkel's opponents, both in Germany and abroad, are closing ranks. On Wednesday evening, Marcus Söder, the governor of Bavaria and certainly not a fervent Merkel supporter, held an event in the Antiquarium in the Munich Residence, one of the most important examples of the Renaissance in Germany. Kurz, who ended Merkel's open border policy in early 2016 by closing down the Balkan Route against the German chancellor's will, was also there.
When Kurz arrived, Söder hurried to the podium to welcome him. Cheers of "Bravo! Bravo!" echoed through the hall. Within Söder's party, the Christian Social Union, which is nominally the sister party to Merkel's CDU, Kurz is something of a star for having stood up to Merkel. And Merkel is seen as nothing but a hindrance, particularly with state elections approaching in Bavaria this fall.
Following Instead of Leading
In person, Kurz seems friendly and obliging. In truth, though, he doesn't care too much what Merkel thinks - a state of affairs that is particularly inauspicious for the German chancellor since Austria is set to take over the rotating European Council presidency on July 1. It seems likely that Kurz will present his own refugee policy proposals to compete with those from Merkel.
Indeed, Kurz has already indicated that he intends to pursue a harder line on immigration and will focus on securing the EU's external borders. The Austrian chancellor likewise isn't supportive of Merkel's idea to increase the EU budget in order to confront new challenges, such as the integration of migrants.
Merkel also seems to be following instead of leading when it comes to EU reform. For eight long months, Merkel declined to respond to Macron's long list of EU reform proposals, made public during a landmark speech at the Sorbonne just after the German election. She finally replied last weekend in the form of an interview with the influential German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, and the timing wasn't entirely of her own choice. The chancellor had learned that Vice Chancellor Scholz and Foreign Minister Maas, both members of the SPD, were planning to present their own thoughts on Europe next week.
But impatience had been growing within the CDU as well. CDU General Secretary Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, in particular, had been pressing Merkel behind closed doors to finally answer Macron and make him an offer.
The interview, though, likely won't end the conversation. The SPD intends to keep pushing the chancellor and the reactions from Paris were polite and reserved. At least she finally gave a response, officials there say. But from Macron's perspective, the proposals - particularly those pertaining to the future of the common currency - don't go far enough. He will almost certainly try to get Merkel to take additional steps - and will likely seek to do so in alliance with the SPD.
When it comes to the trade conflict with Trump, Macron finally got his way with a more confrontational approach. Merkel's attempt to show a friendly face despite the threats from across the Atlantic ultimately did little good.
Initially, it had looked as though the German approach would prevail in Brussels. During the European Council meeting in Sofia in mid-May, she managed to convince Macron of the wisdom of issuing a final offer to negotiate with Trump. It apparently wasn't easy, with Merkel allegedly having to pull out all the stops to get Macron to retreat from his preferred course of confrontation. Sources indicate that the two leaders and their economic ministers were frequently at loggerheads in recent weeks, with each side warning the other that relations between the two countries had to be respectful if they were going to tackle EU reform together in the coming months. A source in the German government says it was the most serious conflict between the two capitals in the past 20 years.
When Trump finally did apply punitive tariffs on European steel and aluminum, Merkel and German Economy Minister Peter Altmaier initially sought to weaken the EU package of countermeasures in the form of tariffs on products like peanut butter, whiskey and Harley-Davidson motorcycles. But this week, it became clear that Germany was unable to change the minds of the European Commission, the French and a number of other EU member states.
Merkel and Altmaier suffered a similar defeat just a few days later. This time, it had to do with a European Commission law against U.S. sanctions on Iran. Merkel and Altmaier view the law as nothing but show, but their arguments fell on deaf ears. On Wednesday, the European Commission approved the law against Merkel's will.
Adversity is also on the horizon for Merkel's refugee policy proposals - and once again, it is Merkel's sister party in Bavaria, the CSU, that is causing her difficulties. Next week, Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, who heads up the CSU, intends to present his "Master Plan for Migration." The details that have already been made public from the plan bode ill for Merkel.
'Quota Is Dead'
On Tuesday, Alexander Dobrindt, a leading CSU member of parliament in Berlin, announced that part of the plan calls for turning away asylum seekers at the border far more often than is currently the case. Nobody whose fingerprints have already been registered in the EU database Eurodac by another country should be allowed to enter Germany, Dobrindt said. "That is the legal framework in Europe and I want to see this legal framework enforced," he said.
Dobrindt's comments seem to be a veiled claim that Merkel's refugee policies are in violation of prevailing law. In February 2016, Seehofer even spoke of the "rule of illegality." It was the apex of his bitter conflict with Merkel over her handling of the refugee crisis.
The Chancellery is operating under the assumption that Dobrindt's demand migrants be turned away at the border is inconsistent with EU law. It is the EU's Dublin Regulation that determines who Germany is allowed to turn away - and despite claims to the contrary, the Dublin Regulation is being applied. "Merkel's interpretation of the law has not changed," say sources close to her.
Which means Germany could be heading for a repeat of the 2016 debate that was never completely resolved.
Last Wednesday, the chancellor was in Munich, where she spoke to Christian Democratic members of European Parliament behind closed doors in a hotel conference room. She addressed EU reform and Macron before turning to refugee policy. Despite delivering her comments in her standard, dispassionate tone of voice, she dropped a mini-bombshell: She blatantly admitted that she had been unable to push through her vision of a joint European refugee policy. And that she likely won't be able to in the future either.
"We have to develop a system of flexible solidarity," Merkel said. "Flexible solidarity" is the term used by Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orbán and his allies to describe their vision of European refugee policy. It calls for those countries who don't want to accept refugees to be given the opportunity to refuse in exchange for monetary compensation.
Merkel also sees the resolution to resettle 160,000 migrants in EU member states - passed at Merkel's urging in 2015 - as a failure. She admits that she has failed to push through her core demands for reforming European asylum laws. "The quota is dead," says on EU diplomat.
Merkel puts it slightly differently. Pushing through the quota with a majority decision did not contribute to European pacification, she says. "That is something I must admit in hindsight."
By Melanie Amann, Julia Amalia Heyer, Christiane Hoffmann, Peter Müller, Ralf Neukirch, Christoph Schult and Gerald Traufetter