Delayed Response

Refugee Crisis Turns Political for Merkel

Merkel bundespressekonferenz action press
Ms. Merkel address the crisis on Monday.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Angela Merkel has had her finger on the pulse of German public opinion for a decade. The refugee crisis is proving to be her greatest challenge.

  • Facts


    • In Germany, 800,000 refugees are expected this year, double that of 2014.
    • Chancellor Merkel promised more money, less bureaucracy and appealed to E.U. countries for joint action.
    • Some German voters have criticized Ms. Merkel for waiting too long to address the refugee crisis, and the right-wing violence it has inspired.
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On Monday, German chancellor Angela Merkel spoke to a packed room of journalists at her annual summer press conference in Berlin.

Only weeks ago, Greece had dominated the chancellor’s agenda.

But Greece and its bailout drama are ancient history in Europe’s hyperspeed summer of crisis management. As autumn began, Germany’s teflon chancellor faced a much bigger and more politically dangerous crisis — that of refugees.

About 800,000 asylum seekers are expected to pour into Europe’s largest economy this year, and the way Ms. Merkel handles the crisis may end up defining her legacy and her likely bid for reelection next year.

Already, the rapid influx of men, women and children from Syria, Iraq, the Balkans and Africa — which has appeared to catch everyone in Germany and the rest of Europe by surprise — could morph into a political liability for those in power, including Ms. Merkel.

After weeks of being criticized for dilly-dallying and failing to show leadership, Ms. Merkel responded on Monday in uncharacteristically firm and decisive fashion, pledging assistance, less bureaucracy and a can-do attitude.

“We stand before a huge national challenge. That will be a central challenge not only for days or months but for a long period of time,” she said.

The chancellor said Germany would rush through legislation to address the crisis, making it easier to weed out those ineligible for asylum while boosting funding to states and local government to provide more shelter for refugees.

She also called on the other E.U. countries to step up and take their fair share of refugees, a call that so far has fallen largely on deaf ears.

“If Europe fails on the question of refugees, if this close link with universal civil rights is broken, then it won’t be the Europe we wished for,” she said.

Her steely resolve was a change from recent weeks, when the chancellor was criticized for not getting ahead of an issue that has rapidly become the most important for her country, and for Europe.

Germany is facing an unprecedented crisis, Ms. Merkel said, equating the challenge of managing the refugees to what Germans faced a quarter century ago during reunification.

Every day thousands of weary people arrive in the country by train, foot and in trucks driven by people smugglers. Reception centers are struggling to keep up with dealing with all of them, saying they lack resources and personnel.

“She’s muddling through; it’s how she’s reacted to other crises like the euro crisis.”

Michael Wohlgemuth, Open Europe

It seemed that Germany and its leader were caught asleep at the wheel.

But Ms. Merkel has appeared to finally wake up, and now faces the twin tasks of providing shelter to so many people, while retaining public support for her open-door policy for war refugees.

While there has been praise from abroad for Germany’s generosity in dealing with the issue, the crisis has also highlighted weaknesses in Ms. Merkel’s leadership style, one that has served her well in her almost decade at the helm of Europe’s largest and richest economy.

“She’s muddling through; it’s how she’s reacted to other crises like the euro crisis,” said Michael Wohlgemuth, head of the Berlin office of Open Europe, a think tank that lobbies for reform of the European Union.

The chancellor’s deliberative approach may have paid dividends in the game of chicken with Athens over its third bailout. But her wait-and-see philosophy is now under fire for failing to cope with hundreds of thousands of refugees.

Two weeks ago, when her interior minister Thomas de Mazière said Germany was expecting 800,000 people to claim asylum in 2015, double that of a year ago, he explained that this was twice the figure forecast just a few months ago, and four times the total for 2014.

Yet, Mr. de Mazière seemed to offer a description of the problem, not a solution.

On the whole, Ms. Merkel and her government have appeared to have waited until a problem turned into a crisis before dealing with it.

Some say Berlin should have been better prepared to handle the flood of war refugees from Syria and Iraq, where the conflicts are long-standing and known.

“We have long warned against underestimating the crisis and we have reacted too late,” said Karl Kopp of Pro Asyl, a German refugee rights group.

Civil war broke out in Syria in 2011 and has since displaced 12 million people, of whom 4 million have fled the country.

While the majority are living in neighboring countries such as Turkey and Lebanon, tens of thousands are now making the journey to Europe.

And as the E.U. migration system falls apart, many are entering Germany, despite the fact that it is far from the bloc’s external borders, where peripheral countries are supposed to take responsibility for asylum applications.

But the E.U.’s rules no longer seem to apply.

Last week, Germany decided to formally ignore E.U. rules stipulating a refugee had to claim asylum in the first country of entry, saying that all Syrians could stay in Germany.

While that move garnered praise, it once again looked like Berlin was reacting to events on the ground, instead of thinking ahead.

Between January and July, Germany registered 44,417 asylum applications from Syria alone.

“The war in Syria has been going on for a few years now, so the politicians should have known that the refugees would be coming,’’ Helen Schwenken, a professor of immigration studies at the University of Osnabrück, said. “One could have anticipated this better.’’

“Merkel could’ve known earlier and she could’ve reacted earlier,” said Gero Neugebauer, a political scientist at the Free University in Berlin.  “But she reacted late.”

In cities such as Osnabrück, a town in northwestern Germany, more than 600 refugees have been given temporary shelter.

Ms. Schwenken said the local experience in Osnabrück has been largely positive and voters are pleased so far with how the town has managed the arrival of men, women and children from Syria and the Balkans.

“Here, the situation has been very positive. There have been lots of volunteers who have come out to help the refugees, and the intake and management of the situation has gone well as far as I can see,” said Ms. Schwenken in an interview with Handelsblatt Global Edition.

But the situation is very different in other communities, Ms. Schwenken said, where local officials have failed to manage new arrivals well, or where far-right violence and incidents have flared up.

Frontline cities such as the Bavarian city of Passau, dubbed the “Lampedusa of Germany,” a reference to the Mediterannean island off Italy where many African immigrants have landed, are struggling to cope.

Passau is dealing with thousands of people streaming into Germany across the border from Austria. In fellow E.U. countries such as Austria and Hungary, authorities are making no pretence of observing E.U. processing rules, and are waving on migrants towards Germany.

Small towns such as Königswetter, in the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia in Germany, are suddenly having to provide accommodation and food for hundreds of people at short notice.

The mayor of the town, Peter Witz, a member of Ms. Merkel’s center-right Christian Democrats, complained that there was a feeling of “helplessness in Germany.”  “There is no plan,” he told ARD, a public TV broadcaster.


Asylum Seekers in Germany-01


Meanwhile in Berlin, families with small children are sleeping in a park near the central asylum registration center in the district of Moabit, as the authorities struggle to process the sheer numbers of people arriving.

“A lot of emergency measures are needed and civil society is having to fill the gap – if we had reacted sooner, the situation wouldn’t be so sad and so dramatic, especially with winter coming,” said Mr. Kopp of Pro Asyl.

On Monday evening and Tuesday morning, more people arrived in Germany in packed trains from Budapest, which were carrying hundreds of Syrians, following a decision by the Hungarian police to let them depart without visa checks.

In general, voters are critical of how the German government appears to have failed to anticipate the refugee crisis, Ms. Schwenker said.

Some communities have continued to close empty buildings and apartments even though it was apparent a few years ago that they would be needed to house refugees, she said.

The way that refugees are being distributed is being criticized, even from within Ms. Merkel’s own CDU party.

For example, areas with big populations have to accommodate more refugees, even though those with declining populations actually have more space.

Oliver Junk, the mayor of the east German town of Goslar, said his town has only been given 99 refugees to accommodate, yet the declining number of residents means that there is plenty of room for more.

“We have empty apartments and no one is using them. It’s crazy,” he told ARD.

Mr. Junk, a member of the CDU, said when he spoke to colleagues about the problem and complained of a lack of leadership, they said that there was little point in doing much.

“They say: ‘I won’t win votes on the refugees issue,’” he said.

On the whole, Germany has been generous and welcoming.  A poll for ZDF this week said that 60 percent of people felt the country could cope with the arrival of so many refugees.

However, CDU voters are traditionally more conservative when it comes to issues like immigration, something the chancellor is well aware of.

Ms. Merkel has already come under criticism that she has brought the party too far to the center on issues ranging from nuclear power to a new mandatory minimum wage to the Greek bailout.

Her hesitancy on the refugee response has been seen by some as another attempt to gauge the political winds.

“She has applied her usual tactics so far, not jumping into the water too early, she watched the situation,” said Josef Janning of the European Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin. “She didn’t engage in the debate until it was critical – now her engagement is strategic, she makes the point that asylum seekers should be respected but also says we need to be clear about who’s entitled to asylum and who isn’t.”

The fact that the far-right are seeking to exploit the issue may actually make it easier for her to take a firmer stance for the refugees.

“People have been upset to see the populist response, so she has acted when the pendulum has swung in the other direction and gained support from people who otherwise might have been opposed to the rising number of asylum seekers,” said Mr. Janning. “They are now following her, upset at seeing the violence at the demonstrations and against the refugee camps.”

Over the past year, German officials have recorded more than 200 incidents of violence or threats of violence against refugees and their housing.

The majority of Germans strongly condemn the arson attacks and demonstrations against asylum centers.

Yet, the chancellor initially came in for sharp criticism that she had kept too quiet on the issue, with #Merkelschweigt (Merkel stays silent) becoming a trending phrase on Twitter.

When she then visited the Heidenau refugee center near Dresden, where hundreds of far-right radicals had demonstrated against the refugees in August, she finally spoke out, calling the attacks “shameful.”

“It’s repulsive how far-right extremists and neo-Nazis are spreading their hollow message, but it’s equally shameful how citizens – even families with children – support this by marching along,” Ms. Merkel said.

“She waited way too long to speak publicly about that,’’ Ms. Schwenken said. “That’s not right.’’

At her press conference on Monday, she had tough words for those who partook in such demonstrations.

She said those who insulted or attacked the refugees would feel the “full force of the law.”

“There will be zero tolerance for those who call into question the dignity of other people,” she said. “Do not follow those who call for such demonstrations.”

The current climate, for the moment at least, is largely pro-refugee.

Even the conservative Bild tabloid has come out in favor of welcoming refugees, publishing pages of statements from prominent politicians, footballers and writers in Monday’s issue.

On Monday evening, as trains arrived with exhausted and frightened refugees in Munich’s main train station, volunteers and police were there to greet them, bringing food, water and even balloons for the children.

Nevertheless, the practical problems faced by many communities will have to be addressed soon, or the current goodwill could dissipate.

“The more people get the impression that this will go on, the more difficult the political situation will become,” said Mr. Janning of the ECFR.

Building frustration with the lack of an organized government response to the crisis is a political challenge for Ms. Merkel, whose popularity in Germany has managed to survive the Greek debt crisis and other threats.

A large part will depend on whether Germany’s notorious government bureacracy responds to Ms. Merkel’s call for flexibility and faster action in processing refugees.

“It’s important that the impulses coming from Merkel lead to change in the German bureaucracy, that funding moves faster, for example,” said Mr. Neugebauer, the political scientist at Berlin’s Free University. “Then the situation and public opinion won’t lead to her disadvantage. But if the authorities don’t know what to do and who can help or if there are no concrete results following her words, there could be difficulties.”

Public support for Ms. Merkel’s open-door policy toward war refugees will depend on how the new arrivals are handled.

“German thoroughness is great, but right now we need German flexibility,” Ms. Merkel said on Monday, referring to how Germany dealt with the global financial crisis and its own bank rescues.

“As long as the general population believes things are going well and the economic situation is good and people mostly believe they’re doing well in Germany, then there’s no evidence that the atmosphere is likely to change,” Mr. Neubebauer said.

Her forceful response to the crisis on Monday could be enough to propel Germany ahead of the issue.

“Merkel isn’t yet seen as having failed,” said Mr. Wohlgemuth of Open Europe. “People were waiting for her to show some leadership and react to the ugly scenes they were seeing. She finally did – and in a typical Merkel fashion – she reacted pragmatically and with an appeal to people’s values.”

For now, Ms. Merkel is working to rally the country behind her amid a crisis that shows no signs of letting up.

In her appearance on Monday, the chancellor highlighted the generosity of Germans. That Germany is the preferred final destination for refugees should be viewed positively, Ms. Merkel said.

“The entire now world looks up to Germany as a country of opportunities and hope,” she said. “That wasn’t always the case.”


Siobhán Dowling covers politics for Handelsblatt Global Edition. Allison Williams is deputy editor in chief of Handelsblatt Global Edition. Kevin O’Brien is editor in chief of Handelsblatt Global Edition. To contact the authors:,,


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