In November, I called “the beginning of the end of Angela Merkel as chancellor.” I was not gloating. Merkel has been a good chancellor and a voice for humaneness and reason in the world. Nor, obviously, did I know exactly how or when the end of the end would arrive. But the two EU summits in Brussels in the coming days could bring it a step closer.
The feats expected of Ms. Merkel in Brussels are superhuman. They make even some other vexed problems (Brexit, Russia) seem small by comparison. Among the larger challenges: Ms. Merkel must display the new dynamism of the Franco-German “engine,” but without alienating the smaller nations. She must appease southern criticism that Germany lacks “solidarity” in the euro zone, but without sliding into a “transfer union” that northern countries reject. Above all, she must arrange a “European” deal on migration to prevent populists from rushing ahead with “national” measures (i.e., border closures) that she rejects on principle.
This amounts to squaring circles. To show euro-zone “solidarity”, she has agreed to the French president’s idea of a common budget for the 19 euro countries. But she will keep it so small and so ill-defined that her southern critics will call it cosmetic, even as her northern critics call it a sell-out.
As quid pro quo, she received France’s assurance of a bilateral deal on refugees. But France is not Merkel’s primary obstacle. That is currently Italy, in cahoots with Austria. For Italy’s new populist government, Merkel is the bogeyman: easy to blame for economic woes and refugees alike. Austria will merrily chime into this anti-migrant, anti-Merkel song. So will Hungary and its neighbors. And Bavaria.
Bavaria? That’s not even a country. But it is the new factor, because Merkel now has her own populist bugbear, a frenemy named Horst Seehofer, colluding with the so-called “axis” against her. Why? Because Seehofer and his CSU (which exists only in Bavaria) care only about one thing: appearing tough on migrants to Bavarians, for the CSU to do well in a regional election in October.
To that end, Seehofer, who is also federal interior minister, has given his chancellor an ultimatum. In effect, it goes: “Fix the migrant problem at this EU summit or I will order all migrants turned back at the German border, in flagrant defiance of your policy.”
Seehofer knows that Merkel cannot fix the problem at the summit. So he will probably follow through on his threat. In that case, Merkel would have to fire him. This would cause the CSU to pull out of the governing coalition, robbing Merkel of a parliamentary majority.
At that point the Greens, who are in opposition but support Merkel on migration, could come to her rescue. Or not. Whatever they do, Merkel will at that point look weak, even moribund. Her own party may push her out, as it once nudged Adenauer and Erhard. More likely, she may decide to quit.