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For a leader normally adored by her followers, a recent regional party conference in the east German town of Schkeuditz was a shock for chancellor Angela Merkel.
Speakers from her conservative Christian Democratic Union condemned her “open door” refugee policy in the harshest terms. “You don’t know who is coming,” said one delegate in front of 1,000 local party faithful. “You don’t know how many are coming. You don’t know how many are already here.”
Some even challenged Ms Merkel’s leadership, with one delegate declaring: “More and more citizens say to me, ‘This is no longer my chancellor’.”
Others applauded when she pledged to stick to her “refugees welcome” approach, saying: “This is the biggest task I’ve faced in my life as chancellor. I know it’s a hard situation but I will not give up.”
But the lasting image from Schkeuditz was a placard reading: “Stop the refugee chaos — depose Merkel”.
Such an affront is unheard of for Europe’s strongest leader. But then the scale of the refugee crisis is itself without precedent.
Ms Merkel, a chancellor known for cutting problems into small slices, has responded by confronting her biggest challenge head on. It is impossible to say whether she will master the situation: with up to 10,000 asylum seekers arriving daily, the flow is set to exceed 1m — five times more than last year — with more arriving in 2016.
Other recent regional party gatherings have gone much better for the chancellor than Schkeuditz. But she is running short of time to slow the inflows, stop the growing party rebellion and reverse an accelerating loss of public support. “For Merkel this is the moment of truth,” says Jürgen Falter, politics professor at Mainz University. “She has an enormous buffer of public trust but it is sinking.”
The concerns spread to the rest of the EU, with critics of her refugee policy emboldened by her domestic troubles; one Berlin MP speaks of schadenfreude in the bloc over the German chancellor in trouble.
Even the question of life after Ms Merkel no longer seems absurd. Günter Bannas, political editor of the Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper, says: “Questions about her policy are raising questions about her chancellorship. It doesn’t go further than that yet. But there is no certainty it won’t.”
Ms Merkel, 61, has huge political capital accumulated over nearly a decade in office. Germans appreciate her for overcoming the threats to the eurozone, keeping the economy growing and fending off external dangers. While Russia’s president Vladimir Putin rocked Europe’s stability with his intervention in Ukraine, the situation also reinforced Ms Merkel’s central role in the EU. Her tough stance on the latest Greek rescue has generated international criticism. But in Germany it has gone down well.
Yet support for the CDU and the Christian Social Union, its Bavarian sister party, is slipping. In the latest Insa agency poll the conservative grouping has fallen 7 percentage points since the summer — its lowest result since 2012. But that is down from 42 per cent, an unusually high rating for governing parties in the middle of a parliamentary term.
Driven by moral conviction
The refugee crisis came as a shock. By the time overwhelmed local officials started shouting for help in late August, it was too late for the chancellor’s normal response — caution. Instead, she surprised Europe by announcing that Germany would accept all Syrians and suspend its right to return Syrian asylum seekers to the first EU country they entered, usually Greece.
She matched this with plans for toughening procedures for returning failed asylum seekers. However, it was the “Syrians welcome” pledge that made the headlines, prompting many more refugees to head for Germany.
Political allies say Ms Merkel was driven by moral conviction and inspired by waves of Germans volunteering to help refugees, encouraged by everyone from church leaders to Bild the top-selling newspaper. Commentators suggested she perhaps saw an opportunity for Germany to show a kinder face to the world than the stern taskmaster of the eurozone crisis, and to distance the country further from its Nazi past.
But Ms Merkel’s response was also grounded in reality. She quickly concluded that the alternative — restricting flows at the border — was impractical. She could not countenance guards using force, even as a last resort, and if they could not use force, how could they stop migrants? “It was a calculation,” says a government official.
Ms Merkel’s main response has been intensive diplomacy. She is seeking peace in Syria and pressing Turkey to restrict migrant outflows; she wants the EU’s external borders reinforced, and is urging less-affected EU countries to accept more refugees and share a burden falling disproportionately on Germany, Austria and Sweden.
She is backing this with emergency measures to limit cash handouts for asylum seekers, as well as speeding up the processing and accelerating the return of failed applicants. However, all of this has yet to reduce the numbers. The new domestic rules depend crucially on the capacity of hard-pressed officials to handle record numbers of refugees.
Internationally, Syria remains at war, while Turkey drags its feet as Germany and the EU agonise over its financial demands. Meanwhile eastern European countries oppose plans for redistributing refugees.
Yet the migrants keep coming. Local councils, in the front line in providing support, are stretched. Even liberals are protesting. Boris Palmer, the Green party mayor in Tübingen, said on Facebook: “If it continues, we’ll have 3.65m more people in Germany in the next 12 months. I’m sorry, we cannot make that happen. The government must act, otherwise . . . social order will implode.”
Many Germans fear for their identity. The country has changed hugely since the 1980s when it still considered itself closed to immigration. Germany’s need for young people to rejuvenate its ageing workforce, combined with migrants from eastern Europe following the fall of the Berlin Wall, have transformed the country — a fifth of Germans are now first- or second-generation immigrants.
Even people who celebrate this diversity find its scale unbearable. Norbert Röttgen, the CDU head of parliament’s foreign affairs committee, says: “It affects the foundations. It’s about the state and our identity. Many people see both are being threatened.” At the same time the political right is gaining ground. Despite internal splits, the ultraconservative Alternative für Deutschland is polling 8.5 per cent nationally, its highest ever, up from 4.7 per cent in the 2013 election.
In former communist eastern Germany, where anti-immigrant sentiment is much stronger than in the west, it takes 12 per cent. Pegida, a populist movement in the eastern city of Dresden that draws thousands to regular rallies, this month invited a speaker who expressed regret that concentration camps no longer functioned.
Worse, xenophobic violence is spreading with 500 attacks on refugee accommodation this year, more than double the 170 recorded for all 2014. Interior minister Thomas de Maizière, a close Merkel ally, has warned of a “dangerous radicalisation”.
These developments are counterbalanced by the thousands of public sector staff working overtime to assist refugees, reinforced by volunteer networks. Many Germans believe the crisis is bringing out the best in their country. But even those who agree, are asking, how long it can last. Thomas Delling, deputy mayor of Hoyerswerda, an eastern German town that saw anti-migrant riots in 1991 but is now accommodating refugees, says: “To take many more people in a short time would be difficult.”
The government recognises the urgency. It wants to reduce refugee inflows by the year-end. CDU/CSU MPs say the chancellor has “weeks not months” to deliver on that promise.
To her left, Ms Merkel faces little difficulty. Her social democrat coalition partners and the parliamentary opposition Green and far-left Linke parties, all favour her open door approach. The challenge is on the right.
Under pressure from conservative voters, and from the AfD’s rise, more and more CDU and CSU MPs are calling for policy change, even a U-turn.
The criticism is clearest from the CSU, under leader Horst Seehofer whose pressure for new border controls is paying off — Ms Merkel is backing CSU-led proposals for frontier transit facilities so refugees can be processed at the border instead of, as now, inside Germany.
The chancellor’s more aggressive critics argue she must go further and erect fences to stop migrants circumventing the transit zones. But even they balk at spelling out how such fences might be protected if guards are not to use force.
Teneo Intelligence, a political research group, argues that “there is a good chance” that Ms Merkel’s strategy of giving some ground to her critics and her Middle East diplomacy “will help her to stabilise her approval ratings eventually”. But will her MPs wait? Around 60 of the CDU/CSU’s 311 parliamentarians could lose their seats if the recent opinion poll drop were repeated in the next election in 2017.
Patience wearing thin
For the first time in years, Ms Merkel’s leadership is coming into question. Regional elections in March could easily turn into a referendum on her refugee policy — and her chancellorship.
Professor Falter still expects Ms Merkel to stay in office and lead the CDU/CSU in 2017. But he puts the chances at only 75-25. Unpopular EU leaders might be glad of such odds. But not the mistress of Europe.
Fortunately for Ms Merkel, there is no natural successor. The likeliest candidate would be hawkish finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble. He has avoided criticising the refugee policy but has signalled his concern by pointing to the soaring costs. However at 73, he would only be a stopgap candidate for many MPs.
The domestic pressures are also hurting Ms Merkel in the EU. Not only have eastern European leaders resisted her refugee policy, Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orban has even intervened in Germany. In a high-profile visit to Mr Seehofer, the man who built Hungary’s anti-refugee fences declared himself “Bavaria’s border captain”.
The reluctance to accept refugees speaks volumes. It is not just the east Europeans. The UK has declined to participate in the planned EU-wide refugee redistribution. France is making only a modest contribution.
For Mr Röttgen, this lack of co-operation is a setback for the EU as a whole. “The failure to show solidarity over refugees is the biggest failure of Europe so far and it will affect the stability of Europe in the future,” he says.
Opposition is hardly new to Ms Merkel, the modest east German pastor’s daughter who took power despite the hostility of her own party’s grandees. What is new is the risk she faces. If she cannot control the situation very soon, her job could be on the line.
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