””

The unravelling of Chancellor Merkel's power

The fate of Dr Angela Merkel's "open door" policy on refugees has assumed global significance. Nationalists from Russia to the United States are pointing at the German Chancellor's policies as a symbol of the failure of an out-of-touch liberal elite. In the most recent US presidential debate, Mr Donald Trump denounced Dr Merkel, adding: "Germany is a disaster right now." Even within the European Union, many leaders echo that sentiment.

As a result, the recent German regional elections were watched all over the world for signs of an anti-Merkel backlash. In the event, the results were ambiguous. Dr Merkel's party, the Christian Democrats, suffered a series of setbacks amid a surge in support for Alternative for Germany (AfD), a populist anti-immigration party.

By the standards of the rest of Europe (or the US), German voters remained pretty steady - and the AfD is still a long way from power. Given that Germany has received more than a million refugees in less than a year, it is remarkable there has not been more of a backlash. (When I recently asked a senior British politician how long a Merkel-style "open door" for refugees would have lasted in the United Kingdom, he replied: "Less than 24 hours.")

Even in Saxony-Anhalt, the region where the AfD did best, the anti-immigration party attracted only 24 per cent of the vote, which is far less than what France's National Front gets in its strongholds.

Nonetheless, the big picture is that Dr Merkel's political position is becoming steadily weaker. This time last year, she was at the peak of her power, but her authority is unravelling. The past week has illustrated the process. It began with Dr Merkel negotiating a desperate and unstable deal between the EU and Turkey in an effort to stem the flow of refugees into Germany. It ended with her party losing ground in the elections. Her loss of authority in both Germany and Europe is feeding on each other. Dr Merkel's failure to deliver a workable EU deal on refugees has eroded her support at home. And now, with German voters beginning to turn against her, the Chancellor's authority will be further sapped at the European level.

Dr Merkel's key partners are already beginning to unpick the EU-Turkey deal, with Francois Hollande, the French President, casting doubt on the idea that Turkey will swiftly gain visa-free access to Europe.


If and when the EU-Turkey deal - in which Turkey agreed to stop the flow of refugees in return for major concessions from Europe - collapses, Dr Merkel's dwindling authority will suffer another serious blow.  PHOTO: REUTERS

The verbal assaults on Dr Merkel, both at home and abroad, are likely to intensify ahead of an EU summit this week that is meant to finalise the Turkey deal.

Some of the criticism is unfair. Dr Merkel was not responsible for the Syrian civil war or the resurgence of the Taleban in Afghanistan. And the policies advocated by her critics - based on tougher frontier controls and numerical limits to the numbers of refugees - present serious problems of their own.

As the barriers go up along the Balkan route to Germany, those problems are likely to become more evident as the treatment of refugees becomes more brutal, and desperate people get trapped in Greece, destabilising an already weakened country.

Nonetheless, Dr Merkel has also made serious mistakes. One way to understand how she has mishandled the refugee issue is to contrast it with her approach to the crisis in the euro zone. When it came to the euro, the Chancellor's approach was defined by a deep concern for public opinion in Germany, an understanding of the threats of moral hazard and unintended consequences, and an ability to find the middle ground between EU countries such as Finland and Greece. Those qualities, combined with Germany's financial clout, allowed Dr Merkel to emerge as the indispensable leader of Europe.

Dr Merkel's failure to deliver a workable EU deal on refugees has eroded her support at home. Now, with German voters beginning to turn against her, the Chancellor's authority will be further sapped at the European level.

Faced with the refugee crisis, however, she adopted a very different, and much less successful, approach. She gambled on the tolerance of the German public. And rather than seeking out the European middle ground, she took a position far to the left of almost all the other EU countries.

As a result, the Chancellor found herself losing support at home and unable to rally a coalition in Europe. Her position was made worse by the fact that she seemed to have lost her ability to look several moves ahead. She failed to see how Germany's "welcome culture" would spark a fresh surge of refugees.

It is a partial defence of Dr Merkel that, last summer, she was respond- ing, under immense pressure, to a tragic and fast-moving situation. But we are now many months into the crisis and she still seems too willing to base her policy on comforting illusions rather than uncomfortable facts.

In particular, the EU-Turkey deal - in which Turkey agreed to stop the flow of refugees in return for major concessions from Europe - involves incredible leaps of faith.

Why should the EU trust a government led by a volatile authoritarian like President Recep Tayyip Erdogan? And why should the Turks believe that the EU will give them visa-free access and a smoother path to membership when so many EU countries are clearly opposed to these ideas?

If and when the deal collapses, Dr Merkel's dwindling authority will suffer another serious blow. It cannot afford too many more.

THE FINANCIAL TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 16, 2016, with the headline 'The unravelling of Chancellor Merkel's power'. Print Edition | Subscribe