Merkel’s response to refugee crisis will decide her legacy

German chancellor makes her position clear like never before amid growing criticism

German chancellor Angela Merkel. Photograph: Patrik StollarZ/AFP/Getty Images

German chancellor Angela Merkel. Photograph: Patrik StollarZ/AFP/Getty Images

 

In a frantic time for Germany, three things have become clear for Angela Merkel.

First, her political legacy depends not on the interlinked banking/euro/Greek crises, as many expected, but on how the chancellor deals with the refugee crisis unfurling before our eyes.

Second, what began as a humanitarian challenge – to cope with an estimated 400,000, then 800,000, now at least one million arrivals in Germany alone – is now a crisis of the chancellor’s authority.

The third is a bitter lesson: if your name is Angela Merkel, you just can’t win.

For 10 years, Merkel-watchers have bemoaned her patented “small steps” approach to politics, which combines old East German caution with poll-driven pragmatism.

The chancellor has always waited to see how the cards would fall before making her bet.

Not now. She has positioned herself clearly, like never before in her career. And still they complain.

On Wednesday evening she faced into the growing political headwind with an hour- long TV interview about what she called “the greatest challenge since unification”.

Pressed on how she would master this challenge, Ms Merkel answered that “it is damn well my obligation to do so”.

Optimism high

For a moment, optimism was high, as images of hand-made, bilingual signs stating “Refugees Welcome” at Munich’s central train station flashed across the world.

Then, faced with Syrians trapped in Hungary, Berlin made a fateful decision not to turn away any Syrian asylum applicants in Germany, despite EU laws to the contrary.

The news electrified smartphone-wielding refugees, swelling further an already historic migration wave, and tipped published and political opinion from “We can manage this” to “Can we manage this?”

Today, 59 per cent of Germans say Ms Merkel’s Syrian decision was a mistake.

With opinion darkening by the day, her TV appearance aimed to calm nerves without spreading false optimism about quick fixes.

“I have a plan, but it doesn’t just depend on me,” said Ms Merkel.

Just as important as finding beds for refugees before winter comes to Germany, she said, was striking a new burden-sharing agreement for migrants in Europe, development work in Turkey, and diplomacy over Syria.

Here again was the small-steps Merkel, but with one difference: she has already nailed her desired outcome – and legacy – to the mast.

This is a politician who has clearly decided she has both everything and nothing to lose.

Though the refugee crisis has squeezed her personal popularity, it is still above 60 per cent.

She has a long way to fall and, with three years to the next federal election, plenty of time to worry about it later.

Party letter

Christian Democratic Union

Warning that their resources were almost exhausted, as are buildings to seize as emergency accommodation, they laid the blame at Ms Merkel’s “open borders policy that corresponds neither to EU law nor . . . the CDU party programme”.

But they know as well as the chancellor that no one is on hand to replace her as leader. So, for now at least, CDU sniping is unlikely to morph into mutiny.

Bavaria is a bigger danger. Her state premier frenemy, Horst Seehofer, is on the refugee frontline and, today, is likely to step up threats to send people back over the border to Austria unless Ms Merkel corrects what he calls her “historic mistake”.

The German chancellor said on television that pleasingly simple solutions, such as halting admissions or closing borders, will not work. People always find a way through.

“And I don’t want to take part,” she said, “in a competition of ‘who can be most unkind to refugees so they don’t come’.”

So why, faced with a historic challenge, has the German chancellor decided to go for broke?

Because inside the new Merkel is the old one, and her philosophy is still alternativlos – no alternative.