Global Affairs

How Merkel came a cropper over migration

Once feted as Europe's most successful politician, German Chancellor Angela Merkel is alienating herself and her party from voters, and her country from Europe, over one issue: her open-door policy towards migrants.

LONDON • German Chancellor Angela Merkel used to be rated as Europe's most successful politician. She steadied her continent's nerves during the euro financial crisis and provided most of the cash for the rescue of the European Union's (EU) indebted nations. She shaped Europe's response to Russia's military intervention in Ukraine. And throughout, she remained the hugely popular leader of Europe's wealthiest nation.

No longer, it seems, for her response to Europe's refugee crisis signals the end of the Merkel era. The 61-year-old may limp on, clinging to power until the 2017 German general election. But the spell she cast over European politics is now over, with profound implications for the continent's security and stability.

Dr Merkel has secured her own distinguished place in history not only as Germany's first female chancellor, but also as a significant contributor to European and global security. When the global financial crisis started in 2008, she refused to be daunted, and rejected the temptation to spend borrowed money. Her handling of the euro crisis remains controversial, but she was the only German politician able to persuade her own Parliament and nation that it was worth spending hundreds of billions of euros to prevent countries such as Greece from going bankrupt.

Dr Merkel did so while being subjected to the most vitriolic and often personal criticism from the same people that were asking her for money. Yet not once did she flinch from believing that it was Germany's responsibility to ensure that the European unification project does not die; those economists - particularly in the United States - who accuse her of acting as "merely an accountant" during the euro crisis simply betray their ignorance.

A similar focus on consequences rather than short-term political interests is also evident in her handling of the Ukraine crisis. With Germany being, by far, the biggest supplier of manufactured goods to Russia, it would have been easy for Dr Merkel to simply ignore Russia's behaviour in Ukraine and continue trading as before. But she did not; instead, she spearheaded the push for sanctions against Russia, and constantly faced down furious German businessmen with the argument that Germany has a duty to uphold European norms of behaviour which Russia had violated.

One should not pretend that Dr Merkel is a saint; she is a flesh-and-blood politician who won't hesitate to obliterate her enemies. Still, in an age when most politicians like to claim a higher, spiritual reason for what they are doing and often with very little justification, her claim is at least partially true.


ST ILLUSTRATION : MANNY FRANCISCO

What remains undeniable is that few German politicians had a better feel for their electorate than Dr Merkel. For Germans don't like their politicians to be either flashy or impulsive; theirs is one country where being boringly dependable remains a virtue.

So, when German voters refer to her as "mutti", the diminutive term for mother, this is their highest form of flattery.

THE BEGINNING OF THE END

Which makes it even stranger that over the past six months, Dr Merkel's feel for her electorate seems to have deserted her, at least when it comes to dealing with the immigration issue.

It will take years before we will learn - from memoirs of those close to her, as well as from declassified internal documents - what really persuaded the German Chancellor to announce in August last year that she was suspending all border regulations, allowing any incoming asylum-seeker into Germany. It may be that, as she says, this was just a charitable impulse in the face of a humanitarian tragedy.

But it is equally possible that it was a gross miscalculation, based on the assumption that the flow of migrants could be contained, and that the migration crisis would be transitory. Neither, of course, was true: Germany admitted over one million refugees last year and, far from resolving the problem, Germany's gesture merely exacerbated the flow of asylum-seekers.

Every politician in Germany knows that, as unpleasant as this may be, there is no escape from toughening border controls. Everyone, that is, apart from Chancellor Merkel, who continues to claim that closing borders "would do nothing" to stop migration flows, that refugees should be shared between all EU countries, and that a "solution" to the migration crisis would come when "peace returns" to Syria.

The snag is that all of this is simply a pie in the sky. Even if the Syrian war was to end tomorrow and the country were to be transformed into a Switzerland-like oasis of prosperity, that won't stop Europe's immigration predicament: as Dr Merkel knows only too well, only a third of those trying to enter Europe today come from Syria.

Nor is the Chancellor true to her word about the supposed uselessness of border controls, for she is constantly dangling cash and a lot of other diplomatic advantages to Turkey in return for a Turkish promise to seal its frontiers, through which most current refugees cross. So, what Dr Merkel seems to be suggesting is that European border controls don't work, while the frontiers of others do, the sort of intellectual gymnastics which leave everyone gasping.

And then, there is the business of pushing other European countries to share in the intake of refugees, in effect forcing them to shoulder the consequences of Germany's policy choices.

That, too, has no chances of working; the only surprising thing is that the Chancellor even bothers to repeat this mantra.

Either way, within a brief period of about six months, Dr Merkel has frittered away a decade of European goodwill; her behaviour at the EU summit last week, when she rammed through single- handedly yet another deal with Turkey without even bothering to consult her European colleagues, has alienated her and has shown up Europe at its worst.

Germany is now more isolated than it has ever been over the past quarter of a century since the country's reunification. The East Europeans feel alienated and are united in opposing Dr Merkel's policies, while the West Europeans are simply stunned how someone who was so deft at managing politics could become so tone-deaf to the errors of her current ways.

And all for one basic reason: the Chancellor knows she has to change course on migration, but is determined not to admit that she was wrong, so the blame is shifted to other European countries, to other governments outside Europe, to everyone apart from herself.

NEW EAST-WEST DIVIDE IN EUROPE

Meanwhile, the German public is taking notice of this deteriorating situation. According to the latest opinion polls, around 54 per cent of German voters continue to support her, but a full 59 per cent are unsatisfied with Dr Merkel's immigration policy.

As the regional elections in some German states over the weekend indicate, migration has become the key defining controversy in Germany's politics, precisely what nobody wanted.

Germany is now more isolated than it has ever been over the past quarter of a century since the country's reunification. The East Europeans feel alienated and are united in opposing Dr Merkel's policies, while the West Europeans are simply stunned how someone who was so deft at managing politics could become so tone-deaf to the errors of her current ways.

The German Constitution makes it exceedingly difficult to overthrow a sitting chancellor. Besides, most of the opposition to Dr Merkel comes from the left of the spectrum in Germany, and the left in Parliament, and the left is even more reluctant to tackle the subject of migration than the current Chancellor is. So, the likelihood is that Dr Merkel will be allowed to limp on until September 2017, which is when the next elections are expected.

But for Europe, that too would be a disaster. For the continent is now split down the middle between east and west over migration, and between north and south over wealth distribution, with the southern states still ailing economically, and the northern ones faring much better.

Germany is the only nation able to counter-balance these countervailing trends; without a German chancellor who has the confidence of other nations, the continent risks being paralysed.

And at least for now, not only has Dr Merkel forfeited the confidence of her European colleagues, but she has also lost most of her European allies.

Seldom before has such a mighty politician fallen so quickly and so steeply.

An old British parliamentarian once remarked that all political careers end in failure, since successful politicians never know when to retire with grace.

That may well prove to be the case with Dr Merkel.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 14, 2016, with the headline 'How Merkel came a cropper over migration'. Print Edition | Subscribe