In October 1980, Margaret Thatcher, then British Prime Minister, claimed “the lady’s not for turning” during a defining speech to her party conference in response to strong opposition to her policy of liberalizing the economy. Now, Angela Merkel, the long-standing German Chancellor, is “turning around” in the face of a political crisis that could have brought down her fragile governing coalition. She survived it, and remains in power, but at a heavy price. By reaching a last-minute compromise with Horst Seehofer, her interior minister and head of Christian Social Union, a coalition partner in her conservative bloc and the sister party of her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in southern state of Bavaria, she agreed to setting up transit centers for refugees in southern Germany bordering Austria to prevent illegal asylum seekers from entering Germany, a sharp reversal to her “welcoming” refugee policy since summer, 2015.
In politics, changing courses usually reveals weakness and compromises the authority of a political figure. Although Merkel survived another crisis, but not without risk. With her position and authority as Chancellor significantly weakened now, she is no more the too-big-to-fail Chancellor as is observed during her past three terms. However, for Germany, compared to her once unchallengeable authority, a weakened Merkel power is less evil.
Firstly, a long-serving government leader ensures policy continuity, predictability and stability in governing power, but one of his or her careless mistakes in rash policymaking will be consequential. Over 13 years in office, Merkel has been widely considered as a powerful leader in steering the economic powerhouse of Europe and counted on across the European Union during the Euro-zone crisis and in face of Russia’s hostility with the West. That’s why the German president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, brokered a “grand coalition” to save her fourth-term Chancellorship behind the scenes after her party’s significant loss of parliamentary seats in 2017 federal election and failed attempt to form a coalition government with pro-business free democrats and pro-environment Greens.
But on the refugee issue, Merkel’s unilateral decision in summer, 2015, to open German borders to over a million asylum seekers from northern Africa and the Middle East, met no material opposition in parliament. Merkel’s central right bloc which should have formulated policy to deter the refugee inflow on a pragmatic basis, on the contrary, turned itself into a sheer leftist party by opening the borders. The mass sex assaults in Cologne city center during 2015/2016 New Year’s Eve and the terrorist attack on Christmas market in Berlin in December, 2016 were the stark reminder of how dangerous Merkel’s open-door migration policy can be for public security of Germany and, more importantly, how perilous it can be when an irrational decision of a long-serving powerful leader met no effective opposition in parliament.
Secondly, long-serving leaders normally are obsessed with clinging to power. To secure power, they tend to exhibit unchangeableness while aware of the consequence of their policies as well as changeableness while facing overwhelming public criticism. Merkel exhibited both. During the past three years, she was hailed as the steadfast defender of liberal democracy and applauded by liberals for her resolve to stand up against moral catastrophe and maintain the solidarity of European Union. But the liberals are wrong as they only perceived her steadfastness, a euphemism for stubbornness. On refugee issue, she shifted her stance time and time again. In July 2015, Merkel did have a somber mind on migration issue when, in a talk show, she told an asylum-seeking Palestinian girl who faced deportation that not all migrants can stay in Germany with her rhetoric of “some will have to go home”. After being harshly lambasted for her coldness and insensitivity to humanity, in only a month, Merkel sensed the public opinion and prevalent “welcome culture” and thus follow the trend. She swiftly shifted position to unilaterally decide to open the border for a large influx of asylum seekers into Germany.
Even after multiple security incidents related to asylum seekers, the Chancellor maintained her policy unchanged and refused to set an upper limit on the number of refugees. After 2017 federal election when her party recorded the worst outcome in almost 70 years, seeing the widespread public concerns over public security issues brought by immigration and discontent over her refugee policy, in early October, Merkel changed her tone on upper limit of refugees that Germany will accept by agreeing to cap the number of asylum seekers at 200,000 per year.
As Seehofer’s CSU is facing the rising support of the populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) in upcoming October regional election in Bavaria, he had to insist on turning down asylum seekers in Germany’s southern border and imposing border control in an attempt to divert voters from the increasingly rising populist party. But fearing for a domino effect that other European countries would follow suit by turning away refugees, the Chancellor wanted an EU-level solution at the EU summit by the end of last June, as it runs counter to her controversial open-door policy since the summer 2015.
As Seehofer threatened to go ahead with border control policy and pull out of her governing coalition if the EU summit couldn’t produce any immigration deal, the Chancellor perceived a real threat to her government and had every incentive to make a deal. On EU summit, she didn’t insist on her previously-touted mandatory distribution of immigrants across EU members any more. Instead, according to the agreement, “control centers” will be built on “voluntary” basis to take rescued asylum seekers from southern European countries and the asylum seekers won’t be relocated on “compulsory” basis, so that both southern European members on the frontline of refugee influx and rebellious central and eastern countries including Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic and Slovakia are satisfied. But the interior minister, remaining dissatisfied with the agreement where there was no concrete detail, threatened to resign. Fearing a collapse of government, Merkel reversed her position to agree to Seehofer’s border control policy.
Thirdly, if the direct consequence of Merkel’s open-door policy is the outbreak of security incidents, what is the cascading effect? The answer is: the comeback of populism across Europe. After Merkel opened German borders in 2015, violent crimes rose in Germany, especially random harassments of women involving asylum seekers, the popular worries over public security directly led to the resurgence of right-wing populist party, the Alternative to Germany (AfD). The party was founded in 2013 with their manifesto of opposing Germany’s policy in Eurozone crisis. As the crisis abated, impact of the party was subdued when it suffered a series of election setbacks in following two years, including 2013 federal election and state election, 2014 European Parliamentary election, 2014 and 2015 state elections.
As the debate on refugee issue became an increasingly dominant national issue, the previously Eurosceptic party evolved into a fully anti-establishment party advocating for interest of Germans and has been more open to partner with extremist groups. In spite of what is labelled as racism, far-right populism, German nationalism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism or even neo-Nazism, the party gained steam and made a triumphant comeback in 2017 federal election by winning 12.6% of the vote, seizing 94 seats in parliament as the third largest party. It was the first time since the WWII that a right-wing party is elected into the German federal parliament.
More seriously, the comeback of AfD in Germany is only a fraction of the more pervasive comeback of populist movement across Europe. While some populist victories are resulting from public concerns over security and identity, some populist resurgence is directly fueled by Merkel’s proposal of mandatory distribution of refugees among EU members. The central and eastern EU countries like Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic and Slovakia, resenting Brussel’s dictatorial policy on refugee quota scheme and fearing the erosion of national identity, are turning nationalistic and populistic. Italy’s new populist and anti-establishment government is the latest case of another populist victory. Last year, Austria elected a coalition government combining far-right populist and pro-Europe factions and the right-wing populist party joined the government for the first time in a decade. With a divided Europe with populist revival across the continent as unintended consequence left behind by her ill-considered refugee policy, are the liberals still hailingthe too-big-to-fail Angela Merkel as the staunch defender of the European liberal values?
For Germany, a weakened Merkel power is not free from potential risks including a more fragile coalition government is more vulnerable to policy rows and disputes among coalition partners. However, it is a less evil scenario compared with a dominating and unconceding political authority as is seen during the refugee crisis because the essence of democracy lies in the back-and-forth bargaining and negotiation as well as balance of power. For Europe, a compromised Merkel authority in EU is consequential. In case of major issues, like another Eurozone crisis, there’s no more a powerful figure to hold the bloc together. However, the designing of European Union is exactly based on equal negotiation and cooperation among member countries and a powerful political figure dictating what he or she believes is right and imposing mandatory obligations on its members runs counter to the very values. At least, EU agreement on immigration is reached on arduous but equal negotiation with bifurcated views satisfied and divided groups bridged. Merkel herself praised the EU agreement on immigration as “a good signal” and France’s Macron called it “European solution and cooperation”.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Geopolitics.
Keyu Chen served as financial translator for Goldman Sachs, J.P. Morgan and Deutsche Bank. He holds M.A. in international journalism and communication from Beijing Foreign Studies University. He’s interested in political communication, comparative politics and international relations.