Daily Briefing

Merkel hangs on by selling out

Asylstreit – Sondersitzung CDU-Vorstand
Feeling blue. Source: Kay Nietfeld/DPA.

If you believe their spin, Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union and Horst Seehofer’s Christian Social Union last night snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. One moment Seehofer was still heard jibing that “I won’t let myself be sacked by a chancellor whom I made chancellor in the first place.” A few hours later, besotted by the thought of clinging to his office a bit longer, he was gloating that the deal they had struck contains everything he had demanded and “allows” him to remain interior minister.

There is nothing good about this deal. Neither for this governing coalition (which includes the Social Democrats who may yet nix the agreement in any case); nor for Germany, which will keep teetering on the brink of a governmental crisis; nor for Europe, which now lacks a reliable partner in its largest member state; nor for refugees, who will be caught in a legal and humanitarian limbo as Europe keeps fighting about them.

Take a look at the deal’s desperately sketchy terms, and you will see an old idea, already rejected in the past, warmed up again at a time (following last week’s EU summit) when new and better ideas are on the table. Merkel and Seehofer agreed to build “transit centers” at the German-Austrian border. The goal is to keep migrants from formally entering Germany, in little extraterritorial exclaves, akin to those in some airports. From there, the thinking goes, it should be easier to send migrants back to other EU countries, primarily Austria and Italy.

For Merkel, this amounts to 99 percent capitulation. Since the fall of 2015, and with renewed vigor in recent weeks, she had insisted that Germany’s nine borders (which all lie within the Schengen area) remain open, and that no asylum seekers will be turned back before their case is heard. Now they will be turned back: into camps that mustn’t be called by that name (lest they remind people of concentration camps). Any reverse flow from the camps to Austria or Italy will cause those countries to close their borders, which amounts to precisely the “nationalist” and “un-European” solution Mekel had claimed to oppose.

This is hardly Merkel’s first U-turn, of course. Her most dramatic reversal until now was her decision, following the disaster at Fukushima, to phase out nuclear power in Germany by 2022, after years of supporting the nuclear industry. But that was merely an opportunistic move to align herself with a new social consensus in Germany; no overarching principle of human rights or European solidarity was infringed. Not so this time. Merkel has sold out.

The deal fails politically as well. It will not restore peace to the relationship between CDU and CSU. There is no more trust among them. The sparring parties will stumble from fight to fight, all the way up to the regional election in Bavaria in October. It remains hard to imagine that both Merkel and Seehofer can stay in office. Meanwhile, the Social Democrats are fed up with both of them.

And the deal fails for Europe. Only a few years ago, the cognoscenti in Brussels were musing about German “hegemony”. That notion seems quaint now. Instead, Brussels, Paris and other capitals should worry that the most stable large country in the EU now appears unstable, and partially paralyzed. Germany during what is left of Merkel’s reign will be unable or unwilling to contribute meaningfully to solving any truly big problem.

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A week before the NATO summit in Brussels, Donald Trump, president of the alliance’s keystone member country, has sent nasty letters to his allies, singling out Germany for extra venom. The message: You’re free-riding on our army, so start spending more on your own, or else we Americans may reconsider our commitment.

Deutsche Soldaten in Afghanistan
Dormant units. Source: Maurizio Gambarini/DPA.

Trump actually has half a point. At another NATO summit in Wales in 2014, the allies had agreed to a long-term goal of spending 2 percent of their GDP on defense. Germany currently spends only 1.3 percent. Stefan Kornelius, a foreign-policy expert writing in the new issue of “Internationale Politik” (the German equivalent of “Foreign Affairs”), calls the 2-percent goal a “fetish”, because it measures the wrong things in the wrong ways. Nonetheless, Kornelius concludes that Germany must dramatically increase military spending — both to be militarily ready (which it is not) and to save the alliance.

But the Germans, as is their wont, are thinking small. The budget for 2019 does include more money for the army: €42.9 billion, or €4 billion more than this year. But that only sounds good until you realize that Germany should in theory be spending more like €72 billion a year. READ MORE

In a nightmare scenario, Trump starts drawing down the US military presence in Europe, or makes other gestures that cast doubt on NATO’s ability and will to defend itself. That, of course, is what Russia’s Vladimir Putin wants. He must be laughing all the way to Helsinki, where Trump is due to meet Putin right after the NATO summit.

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