A year ago the polls for Chancellor Merkel were terrific. She was the most popular politician in the country, her leadership of the CDU party was uncontested, her reputation in Europe and the world excellent. Nobody could imagine she might resign or even be unseated by a no confidence vote.
Now the situation has changed. She is no longer so popular: 54% of German citizens are dissatisfied with her refugee policy, 77% no longer believe that Germany can handle the situation alone but 80% don´t expect the European neighbours to help.
So, will Merkel fall over the refugee crisis or might she despite all the problems turn the corner and how?
When masses of refugees started to leave the Near/Middle East last year to save their lives and seek shelter and security in Europe, most European citizens had sympathy with and understanding for them. After all, one core EU value is to ensure peace and a life in dignity. But soon it became apparent that not all Member States were prepared to live up to their promises in practice.
In September 2015 thousands of refugees became stranded in Hungary and had to spend days without being properly looked after. On those very same days Merkel made a very courageous decision. She offered to let all refugees into Germany. „Yes, we can, we´ll succeed“ was her slogan.
Human rights were for her more important than cost considerations or even a fair distribution of the burden within the EU. A large majority of the citizens applauded andsupported her. The so called „welcoming culture“ (Willkommenskultur) was born.
Without the tens of thousands volunteers the municipalities and Länder would have been unable to cope with the massive intake of refugees.
However, by November last year the atmosphere had begun to change. It became apparent that 1.1-1.3m refugees would come to Germany in 2015 and, if Merkel did not change her policy, the scale of the inflow would continue in 2016. Protests became louder, the xenophobic PEGIDA movement in Dresden and the new German party AfD (Alternative for Germany) not only condemned Merkel´s policy, but openly demanded her resignation.
Angela on the ropes
They were not alone. Even in Merkel´s own party CDU the oppostion grew. MPs were increasingly confronted with harsh criticism of the chancellor´s course in their constituencies and started to worry about their chances of being re-elected. They wanted to have a party vote on the current course, but the party whip managed to contain the revolt. So the opponents sent a letter to the chancellor instead asking for limits on the intake of refugees and tighter border controls.
The sister party of Merkel´s CDU, the Bavarian CSU, went even further and threatened to go to the German High Court, if the chancellor did not accept a ceiling of 200.000 refugees for 2016 and regular and rigorous border controls.
These threats have not made Merkel change her course in principle. However, she has begun to show some flexibility. In her opinion, there can´t be an upper limit to accepting refugees, since, according to the German constitution, the dignity of all human beings is the same and Germany is compelled to offer shelter and security to all people whose lives are threatened in their home country. However, she made three things quite clear:
- The causes of the mass refugee movement have to be addressed at the point of origin. Therefore, help for the refugees in camps in the Near East (Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan) has to be stepped up as well as the international effort to end the civil war in Syria and the aggressive expansion of Daesh (ISIS) in Syria and Iraq. This is a truly international and European responsibilty.
- The EU must establish efficient control of its outer borders. Countries like
Greece must be supported in improving their own border controls. Refusing the help of European partners for sovereignity reasons is not acceptable.
- Asylum is given to refugees on an interim basis. When the situation back home is normal again, asylum-seekers will have to go back. After the Balkan wars about 70% of the refugees did return from Germany to their home countries like Serbia, Bosnia and Kosovo. Merkel assumes that about 50% of the refugees from Syria and Iraq will return. In addition, refugees from so called safe countries like Marocco have no right to stay. Refugees that turn out to be criminal can be expelled right away.
Right now, it is more than questionable, whether what chancellor Merkel calls a European problem will be successfully addressed at European level. If need be, Merkel will be prepared to pay more to Turkey than its promised share to make sure that the refugees stay in the camps they are in right now.
The hope that EU Member States will agree on a ceiling for incoming refugees that will be distributed among them is unrealistic. But Merkel can put some pressure on her collegues with regard to financial aid for Turkey, the Lebanon and Jordan and the efficient control of EU´s outer borders. If the other Member States do not cooperate, Merkel will threaten to close Germany´s borders and control them rigorously. That would be the end of the Schengen agreement (though not of the Euro, as some pessimists forecast).
But she can box her way out of trouble
Citizens want the number of refugees to come down significantly. If Merkel succeeds in stopping the exodus from camps in the Near East, in ensuring efficient control
of the EU borders and shows determination to send home all those not entitled to asylum or acting as criminals, then she will survive the refugee crisis and stay in office.
Whether she will be the CDU´s chancellor candidate in the next federal elections in September 2017 is another question. That will depend to a large extent on Merkel´s success in stopping the rise of the AfD, that is eating into the CDU/CSU´s traditional conservative electorate. But one should not forget: Merkel has a fantastic instinct for power and she may well turn her current crisis into an opportunity to further her future political career.