Lead Germany, or lead Europe? Merkel walks fine line on refugee crisis

The German chancellor is earning plaudits from Europeans for her embrace of migrants. But at home, some see her as making a rare mistake.

Francois Lenoir/Reuters
German Chancellor Angela Merkel talks to journalists as she arrives at a European Union leaders extraordinary summit on the migrant crisis in Brussels today.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel was hailed worldwide for her bold humanitarianism on Europe’s refugee crisis, offering her country as a place of welcome. And now she’s helped push through a relocation plan that forces European Union members to share the refugee burden, even though some are bitterly opposed.

As the EU struggles to respond to what’s been characterized as the biggest challenge yet to its solidarity, Ms. Merkel has emerged as the bloc’s only real leader.

But at home, her leadership is under pressure. Although Germans have widely welcomed refugees, Chancellor Merkel has moved uncharacteristically quickly on this issue. Now she is facing a backlash in her own Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party, as well as increasing questions over her motivations and long-term strategy. And that is highlighting the conflict inherent in her role as leader of both a 28-member bloc and a constituency at home.

“It could develop into a risky moment for her,” says Hans-Georg Soeffner, a German sociologist. “If the problems get too complex, if Germany can’t cope with it, if we don’t solve the refugee problem within our boundaries, this might create a problem for Mrs. Merkel. She will be held responsible.”

Lead Europe, or lead Germany?

This week the EU took a bold step, forcing a redistribution proposal for 120,000 asylum seekers through by majority vote – instead of consensus. The plan, long backed by Germany, was approved despite fierce opposition from Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia. Romania also opposed it. Finland abstained.

While the refugee issue has polarized Europe, the majority in the bloc have hailed Merkel for finally taking a stand. And many Germans have been equally supportive, rushing to train stations and volunteer stands to help welcome the thousands who have entered Germany in the past month.

But her approach has nonetheless raised questions. Gero Neugebauer, a political scientist at Berlin’s Free University, argues that Germany took too long to respond to the situation, and reacted only when it grew to outsize proportions. They "failed to look in the foreseeable future," he says, let alone the "long term."

Christoph Mohni, who works at EineWeltHaus, an intercultural community center in Munich, says that Merkel did not lead on the issue but followed popular sentiment, which has largely embraced Germany’s “welcome culture.” “She more acted out of political opportunism than out of real conviction that this is the way we have to go,” he says.

While it's not unusual for her to track public opinion before she takes a stance, acting spontaneously is rare for Merkel. She has assumed leadership of Europe only reluctantly, and her style, at the European level and home, has almost always been one of caution, gathering information and inching toward decisions.

Some are drawing a parallel between Merkel's refugee decisionmaking and her abrupt end of Germany's nuclear energy program in the wake of Japan’s Fukushima nuclear accident in 2011. The decision assuaged public concerns about safety, but put unconsidered burdens on German industry.

Merkel's decision to close the German border to Austria earlier this month, in order to contain the flow of migrants, is being viewed by some as a U-turn and an acknowledgment of having made a mistake.

'A political miscalculation'

Stefan Kornelius, the international editor of Süddeutsche Zeitung, wrote that Merkel's move amounted to “the admission of a political miscalculation unlike any she has made in 10 years as chancellor.”

In an interview earlier this month, he said Merkel runs the risk of pushing both Europe and Germany too far. “Germany with its openness might damage freedom of movement, one of the core principles in the EU,” he says. Meanwhile at home, the question has turned into a moral, binary one: either Germany helps or it doesn't. That leaves little room to debate how to realistically deal with the situation, he argues.

Merkel has faced pushback from her own political ranks, especially in Bavaria, where the Christian Social Union, sister party of Merkel's CDU, is in power. They’ve publicly stated that she erred in sayings Germany's borders were temporarily open.

Some among the public feel the same. “I think she made a mistake,” says Bavarian brewer Rainer Strauss, looking on as asylum seekers arrived at Munich's train station. He supports Merkel and doesn't think Germany can shut its doors. But he says she acted too quickly. “She sent a message that Germany is open for all. Now everyone is saying ‘thank you Germany.’ And everyone wants to come here, not to Spain or not to Hungary.”

The new quota plan will go some way to ease domestic concerns that Germany is shouldering too much of the burden. But the numbers – 160,000 in total for the EU relocation plan – represent just a fraction of the problem. Some 1 million refugees could arrive in Germany by the end of the year alone.

The refugee crisis in Europe has restored some of the compassion credibility that Merkel had lost in her unyielding support for austerity amid Greece's debt crisis early this summer. That irked many in Europe but won plaudits at home.

But this time she risks putting Europe ahead of her constituency.

“If she is able to tell the people the refugee crisis is not a German one, it’s a European one … it might become easier for her,” says Mr. Neugebauer. “But until now I don’t see it.… This may become Merkel’s most important problem.”

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