Bigger than Merkel

Don’t abandon Europe to the populists

europe, deflated balloon
Deflated, not defeated. Source: DPA

There’s a lot of talk right now about Angela Merkel’s waning power and even speculation about the end of her chancellorship. The Merkel-must-go sentiment is fairly widespread across Germany and not just being whipped up by Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, leader of the Christian Social Union party.

Journalists and some business leaders have also climbed on the bandwagon, insisting that Angela Merkel can’t (or mustn’t) continue on.

It’s understandable that the public has grown frustrated with a government leader renowned for eschewing quick decisions, who always prefers to tackle problems with a long-haul, step-by-step approach. People have grown impatient with her tendency to shelve urgent domestic reforms and focus instead on saving the world, as her stance on trade, Syria and Africa has shown.

It’s quite evident that the CDU leader has lost touch with many of her voters. A famous quote from writer Kurt Tucholsky sums up the nation’s sentiment: “The people misunderstand most things but their feelings are usually right.”

People in this country can feel that the times have become more difficult — and that the government cannot provide comforting answers. People are worried about losing their jobs in the digital revolution, about being poor in their old age, about schools failing to cope as they integrate refugees. They’re worried that they might be worse off in future than they are now.

Decisions like the implementation of a cap on building allowances for families only fans those fears. You don’t have to be a supporter of the populist Alternative for Germany to get the sense that things are going wrong in this country.

Solving the refugee crisis

It is unsurprising then that many people blame the chancellor for these problems. But in this inflamed debate about whether and how Europe can get ahold of the refugee crisis, we shouldn’t forget that this is about the future of Europe, not about the future of our chancellor.

Ms. Merkel is right to fight for common, solidarity-based solutions to the refugee crisis. Securing the external borders is a European issue. The national border controls that Mr. Seehofer demands would spell the end of the free movement of people — an assault on the European single market. If the populists get their way, the open borders that made the European continent strong would become a thing of the past.

The refugee crisis isn’t about the fate of the chancellor — it’s about the fate of Europe. In the grand scheme of things, whether Ms. Merkel’s chancellorship survives the refugee crisis or not is immaterial. What really matters is that Europe doesn’t founder on the migrant issue.

There’s a risk that it will. It sounds tempting to raise the drawbridges and in the short term, closed-door policies may yield political dividends. But what kind of Europe would we be if we can’t find a humane, common answer to the biggest refugee crisis in decades, where almost 70 million people are either refugees, asylum-seekers or internally displaced worldwide? What kind of Europe would we be if every country ends up doing only what serves its national interest? It would be the end of Europe.

The mini-summit in Brussels betrayed to a frightening degree how unwilling EU countries are to find a common solution to the asylum question. The fact that scores of countries didn’t even take part in the crisis meeting to discuss what could prove to be an existential issue for Europe is a warning sign. Positions have become so entrenched that the EU summit at the end of this week looks unlikely to achieve a breakthrough.

It seems that even the offer of billions of euros in compensation can’t tempt the countries bearing the brunt of the refugee crisis to support a common plan.

“Everyone for himself” sums up Europe’s new thinking. The problem is that a Europe that disintegrates into its constituent parts would be a dwarf, politically and economically, in the global arena.

Securing the external borders is an important step to control the refugee influx. Almost three years on from the height of the refugee crisis, the failure of European leaders to give the European border agency Frontex the personnel and the powers it needs is one reason why people are getting turned off politics. The EU summit must make progress here. The idea of establishing central centers to receive migrants and refugees inside or outside Europe also makes sense. That still wouldn’t solve the problem of how to distribute refugees across Europe. But at least it would lessen the pressure on the Mediterranean countries.

Europe doesn’t need an “axis of the willing,” it needs an axis of reason. We mustn’t abandon Europe to the populists. Europe is and remains our future. Ms. Merkel has realized that. One can only hope that enough politicians will follow her down this path.

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