Merkel's Last Stand? Chancellor Running Out of Time on Refugee Issue

Angela Merkel has repeatedly said that it will take time to solve the refugee crisis. But impatience is growing, particularly following the sexual assaults in Cologne. Voices of discontent are getting louder and the chancellor's hold on power may be weakening. By SPIEGEL Staff
The mood in Germany is rapidly shifting, and Chancellor Angela Merkel is under fire.

The mood in Germany is rapidly shifting, and Chancellor Angela Merkel is under fire.


The most unusual tribunal in the republic meets around 25 times per year, usually on Tuesdays in the gray-panelled conference room on the third floor of the Reichstag where conservative parliamentarians often meet. At the front sits the defendant, German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Her accusers sit at the long rows of tables before her, the three or four dozen back benchers who are increasingly adopting the tone of a public prosecutor when addressing Merkel's refugee policies.

Last week saw the most recent such session. "We must finally begin to effectively register the refugees," said Armin Schuster, a member of Merkel's Christian Democrats who specializes in domestic affairs. "We can't keep quiet about uncomfortable truths," complained fellow-CDU member Klaus-Peter Willsch. Mark Hauptmann, another conservative from the state of Thuringia, said: "We have to reduce the number of illegal migrants coming to Germany from the Balkans."

The accused, who in the past had made a habit of delivering extended remarks in her own defense, said nothing this time in response. She silently listened to the accusations while tapping listlessly into her mobile phone or staring at the ceiling in annoyance.

It wasn't all that long ago that things were radically different. Only a month ago, the CDU met in Karlsruhe for its annual party conference and Merkel's refugee policies received a standing ovation. Merkel took the stage intent on placating her critics and she promised a "noticeable decrease" in the number of refugees coming to Germany. The pledge was well received by the delegates present -- such that newspapers wrote afterwards of Merkel's "triumph."

But then came New Year's Eve in Cologne, and since then everything has changed  -- both in Merkel's party and across the country. The occasionally shrill debates in talk shows, on the Internet and on the streets have become even shriller. Among politicians in Berlin, calls for something to be done have grown both in number and volume. And within the population, where attitudes toward Merkel's policies have for months wavered between sympathy and skepticism, concerns are growing: Will the effort to integrate more than a million refugees overwhelm German society? Can the government still guarantee the safety of its citizens? Is the state failing?

And the pressure is rising quickly in Berlin as well. On Tuesday, the Chancellery received a letter signed by 44 conservative parliamentarians demanding that Merkel reverse course on the refugee issue. "Just as in similar cases in the past," one of the initiators told the German press agency DPA, "we expect an answer within a week."

Merkel's decision to offer shelter to the greatest possible number of refugees from the horrors of the Syrian civil war  remains the correct one. And it is understandable that Merkel is hesitant to close Germany's borders because of the danger that such a move might spell an end to border-free travel in Europe.

'High-Minded Folly'

But Merkel has failed to promptly impose order on the streams of refugees flowing into the country. Now, even her supporters are concerned that her plan for a European solution to the problem could fail. Former allies, such as the government of Sweden, have reintroduced tight border controls. Conservative German Constitutional Court justices such as Udo Di Fabio and Hans-Jürgen Papier have accused Merkel of making grave mistakes. And even a center-left paper like the New York Times, which for much of 2015 couldn't praise Merkel's refugee policies enough, recently published a column describing her course as a "high-minded folly ."

Among German conservatives, as well, the criticism has grown sharper. If at all possible, Merkel would like to stick with her policies. But within her CDU, many believe that there isn't enough time left for her plan to find success. The CDU's Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), has recently turned the screws even tighter. "In the next 14 days, we will submit a written demand to the federal government to reestablish legally regulated conditions at the borders," said CSU head Horst Seehofer recently. "If it does not do so, the Bavarian government will have no choice but to submit a complaint to the Federal Constitutional Court."

The clock has begun to tick. Either Merkel and Seehofer will be able to find a compromise prior to an important trio of state elections in March. Or the chancellor faces a lasting power struggle with her own political allies -- a tussle that could ultimately cost her the Chancellery.

The fact that the refugee crisis has now intensified is not entirely due to the scandalous events  on New Year's Eve in Cologne. The primary reason is that Merkel has made little progress with her plan to stop the inflow of refugees at the EU's external borders. Negotiations with Turkey have faltered and Germany's neighbors in the Continent's south and east are refusing to help. "Europe," a member of Merkel's cabinet recently complained, "is leaving us hanging."

Just last fall, Merkel hammered out a promising plan together with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. The idea was for refugees arriving in Europe by boat or ferry to be registered in special camps (known as hotspots ) in Greece and Italy before being distributed in fixed quotas among the other EU member states. At the same time, Brussels hoped to seal off Europe's Mediterranean beaches with the help of the EU border control agency Frontex, if necessary over the opposition of the countries in question.

A Redistribution Farce

Thus far, though, such plans are more theory than practice. The so-called initial reception facilities lack the means to even take the fingerprints of all those arriving. In order to fix the problem, the European Commission recently authorized emergency funds to acquire 90 fingerprint machines.

At the same time, the plan to redistribute 160,000 refugees across the EU has become a farce. The plan was agreed to back in September, but by Jan. 7, a mere 272 people had been resettled. Even worse, the resistance isn't just coming from the most vocal critics of Merkel's refugee policy in Poland and Hungary. Her supposed allies in the heart of the EU are also protesting. "Almost none of the countries in the EU are implementing the decisions made in the European Council, neither in the east or the west," complained Council President Donald Tusk last Tuesday at a meeting with Social Democrats in the European Parliament.

As such, Merkel can, for the time being, forget about her idea of bringing fixed contingents of refugees to Europe directly from Turkey. Even EU countries that count among her allies first want to see a reduction in the number of refugees coming to Europe.

The horrors experienced by the women in Cologne on New Year's Eve have also done their part to reduce the willingness to accept refugees, particularly in Eastern Europe. "We don't want something like what happened in Germany taking place in Slovakia," the country's prime minister, Robert Fico, said in Bratislava earlier this month.

In addition, Turkey is also letting Merkel squirm. There have been some positive signals, Frans Timmermans, deputy president of the European Commission, said after a visit to Turkey early last week. But EU officials have noted in recent months that it's not just Syrians and Afghans who are traveling through Turkey on their way to Europe, but also people from North Africa -- allegedly because the partly state-owned Turkish Airlines is profiting handsomely on flights from the region. The vast majority of those coming from North Africa are ineligible for asylum, but have proven difficult to deport due to a lack of cooperation from their home countries.

Experts in Brussels are thus running out of hope that the number of refugees flowing into Europe can be quickly reduced. At the moment, some 3,000 people are arriving in Greece every day, and that's in January with storms raging in the Aegean Sea. Soon, though, temperatures will start to rise and the crossing will become easier once again.

German conservatives are no longer willing to simply hope the refugee influx will slow on its own. Just how bad the mood has become became apparent last Monday in Berlin, when Bundestag members from Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg held a joint meeting. One parliamentarian after the other demanded stricter border controls and an upper limit to the number of refugees Germany can accept. Bavarian conservatives with the CSU have been demanding such measures for some time. But the CDU parliamentarians from Baden-Württemberg "are now even more radical than we are," said a CSU parliamentarian approvingly.

The letter delivered to the Chancellery this Tuesday likewise demands the introduction of an upper limit. "Germany cannot handle more than 200,000 immigrants per year, whether they are civil war refugees or asylum-seekers," reads the letter, which SPIEGEL ONLINE has seen. The CSU has long been demanding that the upper limit for immigration be set at 200,000 annually. "We are extremely concerned," the letter continues, "that without the quick introduction of a limit, far more refugees could come to Germany in 2016 than arrived in 2015." According to official statistics, just short of 1.1 million refugees, migrants and asylum seekers crossed into Germany in 2015, though it is unclear how many of those may have been registered twice or continued on to other European countries.

Finding a Different Path

Even a member of Merkel's cabinet has recently begun publicly opposing Chancellor Merkel's course. Transportation Minister Alexander Dobrindt, a member of the CSU, warned that the crimes committed in Cologne have made Germans deeply concerned about their security. "The more people feel personally affected, the more they begin to question the core competence of the conservative parties," Dobrindt warned.

Many conservatives share his view. At the meeting of parliamentary conservatives last Tuesday, representatives who had thus far supported Merkel's refugee policies voiced concern. Even leading CSU parliamentarian Gerda Hasselfeldt, who has often sought to mediate between Merkel and Seehofer, demanded vehemently -- for her -- that it has to be possible to turn refugees away at the border if they are not in possession of valid identification. Loyal conservatives like Hesse Governor Volker Bouffier have likewise gone public with their doubts about Merkel's plan: "I am still in favor of a European solution," he said. "But if progress is blocked in Europe, then one has to find a different path."

The number of extremist hate mails  and emails directed at the parliamentarians is not the only thing that has spiked. The number of queries from unsettled Germans who have nothing to do with xenophobic movements like Pegida or other right-wing groups has likewise increased significantly. That has led many parliamentarians who had thus far supported Merkel to change their approach. "Those in favor of a different strategy are now distinctly in the majority," says one representative.

Of particular concern for Merkel is that a growing number of parliamentarians are less worried that their criticism might damage the chancellor. "Thus far, there was a consensus that we had to solve the refugee crisis with Merkel at the helm," says a senior CDU politician. "Now, some are saying, we have to solve the problem, without Merkel if necessary. That is still a minority, but it is a growing minority."

Just as it has for the past several months, however, the greatest pressure is coming from the CSU. With his announcement that he might file a complaint against Merkel in the Federal Constitutional Court, Seehofer isn't just making a concession to party hardliners like Bavarian Finance Minister Markus Söder, who is demanding that Merkel's refugee policies be put up for a vote in federal parliament. Seehofer is also thinking about his state's financial interests. Bavaria, after all, is on the frontlines of the refugee crisis, with the vast majority of migrants entering Germany through Bavaria's border with Austria. Were the court to rule in Bavaria's favor, Seehofer has indicated, he would make new financial demands from Berlin. "Against that background, one must now more than ever think about whether the federal government must participate to a greater degree in the costs," says Seehofer.

Danger Ahead

Money has always been a good argument in politics, but votes are even more important. And here too there is bad news for Merkel. Many conservatives have long been hoping that losses in the upcoming state elections could be limited. Internally, the CDU wasn't particularly concerned about the right-wing populist party Alternative for Germany (AfD) gaining a bit of support so long as the CDU was able to emerge as the strongest party and secure the governor position.

But recent surveys now show that the CDU result could be worse than feared. Those surveys show that the AfD may not just exceed the five-percent hurdle for parliamentary representation in March, but could also emerge with a two-digit result in Baden-Württemberg. Furthermore, sinking CDU poll numbers in both Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate make it possible that Merkel's party could emerge from both state elections without the governorship, depending on the make-up of the ultimate governing coalition. That would be a disaster for Merkel. Defeats in important state elections have always been dangerous for sitting chancellors, most recently hastening the end of Gerhard Schröder's term in office.

Merkel is fully aware that she is running out of time. If she isn't soon able to demonstrate that she is making headway, she could be in trouble. Even her own confidants say as much. "Then we would be facing a power struggle," says one.

Chancellor Merkel, for her part, continues to insist that proposals made by her opponents won't work. Closing the border to Austria? She believes that doing so risks setting off a domino-effect that would ultimately destroy the Schengen border-free travel regime and destabilize the Balkans.

Merkel is particularly concerned about the gradual erosion of her authority. Throughout her time in office, she has earned a reputation as someone who has mastered all of the crises facing Germany and Europe. Now, however, every promise Merkel makes is bursting like a soap bubble. German voters are watching Merkel fail at one of the most fundamental tasks facing a state: That of controlling who enters the country.

The Chancellery, of course, has long since begun working on a potential Plan B. But it won't be the complete sealing of Germany's borders: The loss of face for Merkel would be too great. Instead, aids are looking at other possibilities, including that of turning away certain groups -- those from Afghanistan, for example -- at the border. That would at least demonstrate a desire to reassert control over the German border without necessarily putting an end to the idea of open borders in Europe.

Help from the Balkans

Among conservative leaders, another idea, one favored by the Austrians, is gaining support. The plan calls for German and Austrian police to assist their colleagues in Slovenia, and possibly Croatia as well, with securing the EU's external borders. Asylum-seekers trying to enter with forged documents or with no papers at all would be turned back. The hope is that such a plan would significantly reduce the number of refugees coming to Europe by way of the so-called Balkan Route.

Last Wednesday, Austrian Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner spoke about the proposal with Emily Haber, state secretary in the German Interior Ministry. It is well-known that German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière is not opposed to preventing certain groups of refugees from entering Germany in the first place. Out of loyalty to Merkel, however, he has thus far not issued the relevant orders to Germany's federal police force.

Shifting the onus for control onto the Slovenian and Croatian border would raise a number of practical and legal questions. Politically, though, it would be an elegant solution, allowing Merkel to make a partial retreat without loss of face and making it possible to reach a compromise with the CSU.

Sources in the Interior Ministry say that they will soon begin looking intensively at the Austrian proposal: "Quickly and with the necessary care."

By Melanie Amann, Peter Müller, Ralf Neukirch, René Pfister, Michael Sauga and Christoph Schult