Just when Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, seemed to have secured a degree of political calm with a deal in the Greece crisis, along comes something much bigger — the storm that has blown up in Germany and Europe over unprecedented streams of refugees.
Faced with the largest movement of people in the region since the second world war, the 61-year-old chancellor has made perhaps the biggest gamble of her political career by declaring that Germany would welcome more refugees, as up to 1m asylum seekers, or on some estimates even 1.5m, are expected to cross its borders this year.
Her officials then announced the imposition of border controls to create the impression that Germany would not be a soft touch when it came to enforcing immigration rules. But Ms Merkel stuck to her guns, saying a couple of days later: “If we now have to start apologising for the fact that we are showing a friendly face in an emergency situation, then this is not my country.”
The commitment takes Ms Merkel into the unknown. In 10 years in office she has weathered everything from the global financial meltdown and successive Greek debt crises to turmoil in Libya, Syria and Ukraine. Until this summer, the main exception was the 2011 decision to shut all nuclear power by 2022 following the Fukushima disaster. And even that move was not as revolutionary as it seemed, because it accelerated an existing phase-out scheme.
However, Ms Merkel has now taken a leap into the dark that will mark German politics to the next election, in 2017, and beyond. The huge political capital, administrative effort, and financial cost will inevitably divert resources from other issues — including the economy. Business leaders are already concerned. “The government hasn’t thought this through,” says one.
Ms Merkel was almost certainly influenced by practical considerations, as she normally is. By the time she put out the welcome mat a month ago, officials were forecasting that 800,000 asylum seekers would reach Germany this year, an all-time record and four times more than last year’s 202,000.
With most already in the country, or on the road, officials may have judged it impossible to stop the flow as Germany, with its Nazi past, could not risk the international opprobrium that would accompany any use of force.
The chancellor also took the view that the Germany economy — and public budget — are robust enough to carry the extra costs of refugees and that an ageing country needs young immigrants. With her high standing in opinion polls, she could afford the possible political risk, especially as the strength of the public welcome in Munich suggested the voters would back her.
Unusually for Ms Merkel, emotion seems to have played a part. Earlier in the summer, she had been discomforted by a 14-year-old Palestinian girl who had cried in front of the chancellor at a televised meet-the-people gathering. The teenager said she and her family had been living in limbo for years, waiting for permanent residency.
Ms Merkel said then that Germany could not take everybody. A few weeks later she said in an interview that the right to asylum had “no upper limit”.
The developments have started to dent her commanding personal lead in opinion polls. An ARD television poll, published last week, showed her personal support falling 9 percentage points to 54 per cent in a month. According to other polls, her CDU/CSU bloc’s position has not yet been seriously affected by the refugee crisis, not least because the social democrats, as coalition partners, share responsibility. A survey for ZDF television put the CDU/CSU at 40 per cent in mid-September, compared with the 41.5 per cent won in the 2013 election. The social democrats were on 25 per cent, little changed from the 25.5 per cent achieved in the election. The conservatives remain within sight of an outright majority.
However, Ms Merkel’s critics warn that voters could turn more hostile if they decide the government is failing to master the crisis while public money is diverted from general social spending to refugees.
Chief among the naysayers is Horst Seehofer, head of the CSU, the Bavaria-based sister to the CDU. On the right of the CDU on social questions, the CSU has long raised doubts about immigration. Mr Seehofer has condemned Ms Merkel’s relaxation of asylum seeker rules as “a mistake”.
But the real risk is of a public backlash that could fuel rightwing sentiment. Fortunately, for Ms Merkel, the Alternative für Deutschland, the only national party to the right of the conservatives, has split after a power struggle which saw founder Bernd Lucke quit and found Alfa — the Alliance for Progress and Renewal.
But the core AfD is adopting a stronger rightwing agenda and making ground in eastern Germany, where anti-immigrant passions run high. In Saxony, heartland to such sentiments, the AfD recently scored 13 per cent in an opinion poll by the Infratest Dimap agency, compared with 10 per cent in last year’s regional assembly elections.
Saxony is not all of eastern Germany, and western Germany is four times larger, in population, than the east. But Ms Merkel will be watching Saxony closely.
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