Chancellor Angela Merkel can no longer ignore the building pressure and growing skepticism over her political course on refugees. But is Europe’s most powerful leader willing – and able – to quickly and radically change her open-door, “refugees welcome” policy that has fueled an unabated surge in people seeking asylum in Europe, especially Germany?
Ms. Merkel is clearly wavering. Never before in her 10 years in office has she faced so much dissent at home and abroad – and arguably made so many mistakes – as she has with the refugee crisis.
Many agree the chancellor has responded far too late to the historic dimensions of the crisis and they see the country in a state of emergency.
Her mantra about coping with the influx in refugees – “We’ll manage it” – appears shakier than ever.
Now even some of her closest allies are breaking rank and speaking out, as support for her zig-zag political course disintegrates and the popularity of right-wing groups continues to grow.
Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble has emerged as the most senior critic of her policy. He warned on Wednesday that the flow of refugees into Germany and Europe could turn into an “avalanche” if not managed properly.
“The situation could become extremely bad for all of us.”
“Avalanches,” he said at a conference in Berlin, “can be triggered when some slightly careless skier goes to the slope and moves a little bit of snow.” It was impossible, he added, to tell at this point whether the avalanche had reached the valley floor or was still in the top third of the slope.
Like the chancellor, Mr. Schäuble emphasized that Germany can’t solve the problem by itself and needs a concerted European effort. He warned that the situation could become “extremely bad for all of us.”
That again was Germany’s stance at the E.U.’s informal summit on Thursday in Malta, where leaders of the 28 member states pushed forward with attempts to control the unrelenting flow of migrants, including approving a €1.8 billion ($1.9 billion) trust fund for Africa
Until recently, the German finance minister has confined himself to comments on the affordability of the refugee crisis. He has reason to be concerned: The IFO economic institute on Tuesday said housing, feeding, educating and providing health care to the estimated 800,000 expected in Germany this year would cost €21.1 billion.
Mr. Schäuble has already signaled he may have to drop plans for a balanced budget next year due to the cost of managing the refugee crisis.
Even the chancellery chief of staff, Peter Altmaier, long among Ms. Merkel’s closest confidants who has unconditionally supported her position on the refugee crisis, has voiced his concern over the German government’s course.
There is “no blueprint, no compass” to solving the influx of people fleeing war and terrorism in the Middle East and Africa to seek refuge in Europe, he said Wednesday in an interview with German television.
Those are powerful comments from the person Ms. Merkel recently put in charge of handling the refugee crisis, in what was regarded as a snub of Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière.
The apparent demotion appears not to have deterred Mr. de Maizière. On the contrary, the minister announced Tuesday that Germany had in late October reinstated the Dublin Protocol, which requires refugees to be registered in the first E.U. country they enter, with the exception of Greece. In August, Berlin temporarily suspended the policy for Syrians.
Neither Ms. Merkel nor Mr. Altmaier were informed of the decision prior to Mr. de Maizière’s announcement, which also came as a surprise for members of her Christian Democratic Union party and coalition partner, the Social Democrats.
It’s not fully clear why Mr. de Maizière, another close ally of Ms. Merkel, took such a step, other than to signal an urgent need to stem the flow of refugees, particularly Syrians, pouring daily into the country by the thousands.
The troubling news for the chancellor keeps pouring in.
Renate Künast, a Green Party parliamentarian, asked the interior ministry to provide the number of refugees in German registration centers. Junior interior minister, Ole Schröder replied that the government had “no overview of the number of asylum seekers currently in the registration centers,” she said in an interview with the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper.
Ms. Merkel’s asylum policies seem to be providing a shot in the arm to the country’s right-wing populists. The anti-immigration Alternative for Germany, or AfD, party received 4.7 percent of the vote in Germany’s last general election but is currently polling at 10 percent, according to survey carried out by INSA for mass circulation daily Bild newspaper.
Nearly every day, there’s news of a refugee center being set on fire, or refugees being beaten up.
Last Saturday an AfD march in Berlin calling on the government to end its open-door policy attracted 5,000 people.
As Ms. Merkel’s popularity plummets, so, too, does that of her party. The INSA poll showed support for Ms. Merkel’s conservatives had dropped to 34 percent, its lowest level since June 2014. And the power struggle with Horst Seehoffer, the head of her Bavarian sister party Christian Social Union, is harming both sides.
Still, Volker Kauder, the leader of Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union in the German parliament, the Bundestag, appears optimistic.
“Angela Merkel has for a long time had a clear plan for how we should react to the movement of refugees such that it doesn’t damage Germany in the long term,” he told the Schwäbische Zeitung on Thursday. “She’s following up the points that are necessary for that. I don’t see that there’s any underhand change of course.”
On Wednesday, Slovenia began erecting a razor-wire fence at its border with Croatia to stem the flow of migrants, following Hungary, which closed its border with a similar fence in mid-October.
For Ms. Merkel, sealing off Germany’s borders as many of her critics demand is no option. The erection of a fence would represent the end of the European ideal.
Also, having grown up in the former communist East Germany, she knows walls and barbed wire all too well and doesn’t want to relive that experience.
If her historic decision to open Germany’s borders is morally unassaible, it has put her on the defense, politically. Abroad, she needs the help of opponents such as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. And at home, her quarrel with Mr. Seehofer over establishing a maximum number of refugees Germany can accept could derail her wobbly governing coalition.
Criticism has also been raining in from the Social Democrats, most recently after Mr. Schäuble’s reference to the surge in refugees as an avalanche.
“You can’t equate people in desperate circumstances with a natural disaster,” Heiko Maas, the German justice minister, told Spiegel Online. “No one should gloss over difficulties but at the same time people shouldn’t add fuel to the fire.”
One of Ms. Merkel’s greatest strengths has been her unerring sense of political reality. And the reality today, many now argue, is that she needs to understand the situation is out of control and put her crisis management skills to work.
John Blau is a senior editor at Handelsblatt Global Edition. To reach him: firstname.lastname@example.org