German Chancellor Angela Merkel talks to the press as she arrives at the Alliance’s headquarters ahead of the NATO summit in Brussels, Belgium, July 11, 2018. (Paul Hanna/Reuters)
Across the chancelleries of Europe, a realization is dawning. It began at the outskirts of the continent and has now made its way to the heart of Angela Merkel’s government in Berlin. It is the realization that even Merkel is mortal.
For the entirety of this century so far, Merkel has been a constant. She has been leader of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) since 2000, when she publicly turned on her former political mentor, Helmut Kohl, over a party-funding dispute. And she has been chancellor of Germany since 2005, when she managed to put together a coalition with the left-wing Social Democratic party (SPD). There she has stayed for 13 years, to work with three different American presidents, four British prime ministers, and more Mediterranean governments than anyone could count.
She steered the continent through the financial crisis of 2008 and the resulting euro-zone crises, becoming — in the “austerity” process — a bogeywoman for much of the debt-ridden south. But having steered the continent through those disasters, she then, in 2015, almost single handedly plunged it into another. It is this mess that has now led people to begin to draft Merkel’s political obituaries.
The conflict and economic hardship that have caused millions of people to head towards Europe in recent years are, of course, not the responsibility of Angela Merkel. But what is very much her responsibility is that, as the flow was at a historical high, with hundreds of thousands of people pressing into southern Europe in the summer of 2015, Angela Merkel unilaterally declared that normal border procedures would be suspended. The world could come. Rallying her own nation on the last day of August that year, the chancellor uttered the now fateful words Wir schaffen das (“We can do this”).
As a consequence, in 2015 Germany took in up to 1.5 million migrants in a single year. Sweden took in a similar amount per capita, adding around 2 percent to its population in just that year. Many people labored under the misapprehension that these arrivals were asylum seekers. Yet while some were fleeing the Syrian civil war, most were not. As the vice president of the European Commission, Frans Timmermans, subsequently admitted, most of the 2015 arrivals in Europe had “no reason to apply for refugee status” and therefore no right to be in Europe. Since then, the flows have slowed (largely because of a bribe being paid to Turkey’s President Erdogan, who now boasts of holding a gun to Europe’s head). But although the Turkey-to-Greece route has largely closed, the other route into Europe for asylum seekers and economic migrants from across the whole of Africa, most of the Middle East, and much of the Far East runs through North Africa. And that route remains open, with tens of thousands of people this year making the journey — mainly via Libya — in the hope of getting into European waters, where European naval vessels then pick them up and safely transport them to Italy.
Whether or not Germany could cope with migration at such a speed and of such a nature, most of Germany’s European partners decided that they could not. During 2015 and the years that have followed, these countries have grown to greatly resent that the whole continent should be held hostage to the whims of a chancellor in Berlin. And whims they were, for only months before opening the borders, Merkel had declared any abandonment of the normal rules to be impossible.
The results of Merkel’s decision have taken time to play out. In 2015, Britain was among the EU countries that refused to take part in the migrant-redistribution quota schemes proposed by Brussels and Berlin. A year later — in a decision not hindered by Merkel’s disagreement — Britain voted to leave the European Union altogether. Since then, Merkel has seen the status quo she did so much to hold together begin to pull apart and turn its fury towards her.
In April of this year, Hungary’s voters returned Viktor Orban to power for a third term in a decisive electoral victory. During the height of the 2015 crisis, Hungary (a country of 10 million people) saw 400,000 migrants cross its territory. It was the first country to start building border fences — a policy that was condemned and then copied by most of its neighbors. Throughout that year and in the period since, Orban has been Angela Merkel’s most immovable opponent. He has refused to buckle before all the threats of Brussels and Berlin. Along with the other members of the Visegrad Four (Poland, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic), he has refused to accept migrant quotas and insisted that he will hold this stance even in the face of much-threatened fines from Brussels. This has paid off, not least because it is no longer the Visegrad countries that seem to be in a position of weakness.
In regional and then national elections over the last two years, German voters repeatedly punished Angela Merkel. Last September, they not only delivered historically low votes for her own party and those parties that were in coalition with her but raised up a new party that was founded only in 2013. Today, the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) has a presence in most of Germany’s regional assemblies. After last September’s elections, it took almost half a year for Merkel to put her grand coalition back together. But it also left the AfD, which is vitriolically opposed to Merkel and her migrant policy, as the official party of opposition in the Bundestag. One of the few things holding the present coalition in Berlin together is the knowledge that a return to the electorate at this stage would see the AfD benefit and the parties of government suffer.
And so the forces that look set to topple Merkel at some point soon have begun to coalesce.
The first ring of pressure now comes from outside Germany, where each new election goes in the same ineluctable direction. Until last year, it was possible to pretend that a concern about borders and a refusal to obey the status quo was an Eastern European foible with no risk of wider contagion. But since last autumn’s elections and the formation of a new coalition government in December, Austria has been governed by the center-right Austrian People’s party and the Freedom party, which was until recently always described as “far right.” Both parties are deeply opposed to the Merkel policy on migration.
Still more serious for Berlin was the moment in March this year when the Italian electorate put its most unignorable two fingers so far up to Berlin and Brussels. The subsequent formation of a government consisting of the Lega (also until recently described as “far right”) and the comedian-founded Five Star Movement could not have been worse for Berlin. The Italian coalition agreement boasted of an end to fiscal restraints and the immediate deportation from Italy of half a million illegal immigrants.
No sooner had he entered office than the new Italian interior minister, Matteo Salvini, demonstrated that he intended to act on his promises. In June, a boat called “The Aquarius,” containing more than 600 migrants picked up at sea, was refused the right to land in Italy. Malta, whose government has repeatedly lectured other EU member states for not doing enough for migrants, also refused the ship. In the end, the new left-wing government in Spain made a great show of being the country to allow the migrant ship to land.
But Salvini’s stand proved significant. France’s Emmanuel Macron accused Salvini of being “cynical and irresponsible.” But it was noticeable that President Macron (perhaps being cynical and responsible?) at no point offered to make France the new landing ground for even one ship full of migrants, let alone the hundreds of such ships that have driven the Italians to such fed-up behavior at the polling booths.
Everywhere the power is shifting. When Salvini is condemned for his “anti-migrant” rhetoric, he has the perfectly true response that it was not Italy that asked the migrants to come. It was the German chancellor who did so, and who now expects all of Europe to pick up the tab that she ran up. Northern European countries such as Denmark have long been making their own arrangements and refusing to accept any migrant who has already traveled through other, safe European countries. And so from every direction the focus of the continent’s ongoing immigration crises is inexorably fixing on Berlin — and on one woman in particular.
But while the consequences of Merkel's 2015 decision continue to play out on the international level, they also play out on the local level for German citizens. One consequence of the current migrant wave (a wave that includes a disproportionate number of young males) has been an upsurge of crime and especially violent and sexual offenses. In Germany and Sweden in particular, these facts are both well known and barely covered by the mainstream press. Germans describe having to read between the lines of their morning newspapers. The public has learned to assume that, if an unnamed person is reported to have committed an unmentioned crime against an unnamed individual, the culprit is an immigrant. Occasionally, a case emerges that is so horrific that even the German media cannot fail to report on it.
Such was the case at the end of May, when a 14-year-old Jewish girl from Mainz, Susanna Feldman, was reported missing. At the beginning of June, her body turned up near a refugee center. Her suspected killer — Ali Bashar — had arrived in 2015, at the age of 18, with his parents and five siblings. He was actually refused asylum, and like many others was due to be deported. But, again like most such immigrants, he never was deported and ended up getting a temporary-residence visa. He molested and killed Susanna Feldman, only to then succeed in escaping Germany via the Dusseldorf airport and going back to his native Iraq (where he has since been arrested by the Kurdish authorities).
The Feldman murder is far from the only such case — one German-government-funded study released early this year said that more than 90 percent of a recent upsurge in crime in Lower Saxony could be attributed to young male migrants — and for the Merkel government, it could not be worse. That the victim was a young Jewish girl strikes some of the most painful touchpoints of post-war Germany. Already the heads of the Jewish community in Berlin have warned Jews not to wear visible symbols of their faith in major German cities. But the Feldman case also highlights the mess of the whole system. Everywhere the public-opinion polls show a one-way traffic. More and more Germans disbelieve and distrust their chancellor and doubt the wisdom of her most significant decision.
Now the revolt has come home to Merkel herself. In Bavaria, which has been dominated ever since the Second World War by Merkel’s coalition-partner party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), there is a growing sense of political crisis — not only because Bavaria is one of the German states to have felt the post-2015 crisis most acutely (many of the migrants that year came through Munich) but also because the CSU feels the AfD snapping at its heels. The previously inconceivable idea that the CSU may lose power on its native turf means that its leaders are now toughening their own rhetoric and policies.
In recent months, Merkel’s interior minister, Horst Seehofer, the leader of the CSU, has been explicit in his attempts to outflank or escape his coalition partner. Sensing the damage that his alliance with Merkel has been doing him, in March he even declared that “Islam does not belong to Germany.” Now the game of one-upmanship on the German right is seeing other CSU and CDU figures attempting both to steal some of the AfD’s thunder and distance themselves from their own chancellor. Much of the debate in Germany — as in the rest of Europe — has centered on what to do with migrants who have already walked through safe European countries (where, technically, under the terms of the Dublin Treaty, they should have claimed asylum on arrival) and whether these migrants can be turned away from the borders of countries farther into Europe.
Everywhere there is that familiar political moment when subdued political murmuring bursts out into full-scale opposition. As the EU continues to try to find a common policy on migrants, Merkel’s own colleagues have begun to issue ultimatums. At the end of June, Seehofer gave her a weekend to come up with a new policy, threatening that if she did not do so, his home state of Bavaria would begin to turn away migrants at its borders with or without the approval of the chancellor. With Austria taking up the rotating presidency of the EU in July, the biggest threat for Merkel had been that other EU member states would continue to develop their own unilateral policies. But it is perhaps the biggest demonstration so far of Merkel’s loss of control that it is not just every other EU country that is starting to go its own way, but states within Germany itself.
At the end of June, no less a figure than the head of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, surveyed this landscape and warned, “The fragility of the EU is increasing. The cracks are growing in size.” While Seehofer was reportedly threatening to resign and the German cabinet looking like it might fall, Wolfgang Schauble, the president of the Bundestag, warned that the CSU and CDU were “standing at the edge of the abyss.”
This was the moment of alignment. When everyone from the Italian EU-skeptic government to the head of the European Commission is in agreement on something, it turns from being a likely trend into being a likely fact.
At the beginning of July, with new elections looking like a real possibility, Merkel finally accepted the policies she has spent years resisting. Late on July 2, she agreed to reinstate border controls between Austria and Germany, to hold migrants at camps along the country’s southern border, and to turn back migrants who have already claimed asylum in other EU countries. At the same time, the EU as a whole agreed on a plan to tighten the continent’s external borders and set up migrant-processing camps in North Africa. All these are policies that could have been instituted in 2015. All are policies that Merkel obstinately resisted for years, in spite of public demand.
The cause of that growing demand was not only clear but obvious. From 2015 till today, the German public looked at the flows of people whom Merkel had invited in and learned some of the consequences. And, like the publics all across Europe, they heard the cry of “We can do this” but began over time to realize, “We can’t do this.” Or, at the very least, “We can’t keep doing this.”
Who ever told them that they could? Only one person. And if a political price must be paid, then there is only one woman in Europe who can pay it. If not today, then someday soon.