Merkel ground down by Germany’s new political poker
Chancellor’s legacy tied forever to refugee hand she played on principled hunch
German chancellor Angela Merkel arrives for a party leadership meeting at the CDU headquarters in Berlin on Monday. Photograph: Michael Kappeler/AFP/Getty Images
Angela Merkel promised to do things differently. Exactly 20 years ago the young East German-raised politician confided to photographer Herlinde Koelbl that, after watching her power-hungry West German colleagues in Bonn, she was going to find the right moment to leave the political stage.
“I don’t want to be carried out as a half-dead wreck,” she said.
The younger Merkel’s words came back to mock her this week with an unflattering shot of the chancellor being driven to another punishing day in the galley: hair tousled, eyes welded shut, face hanging in exhaustion.
After another late-night crisis meeting on Monday, her third in four days, the Christian Democrat (CDU) leader once again pulled off an 11th-hour compromise.
A dozen years of many such all-nighters – to rescue Europe’s banks, its currency, avoid a Russian-Ukraine war and too many others to mention – have always yielded results. But no one in Berlin is taking bets on the half-life of this latest Merkel breakthrough – or of Merkel.
Like last week’s European Union political deal on migration, Monday night’s coalition-saving deal may yet emerge to be hot air
To placate her mutinous Bavarian allies, facing an electoral disaster in October on their exposed law-and-order flank, Merkel has agreed to closed asylum transit camps at three Austrian border crossings.
It’s not clear whether these camps are actually needed, or how they will work in practice. But, symbolically, the Monday night deal consigns her 2015 “we can do this” refugee response to the incinerator of political history, a half-dead wreck.
Merkel’s art of the deal is as follows: she stakes out her position in cautious, ambiguous language, watches silently where everyone else is and wants to be, then decides late in the day if she needs to move and, if she does, denies doing anything of the sort.
In the past, the German media have been too polite to call her out on this – but not this time.
Her German critics, led by the thriving far-right Alternative für Deutschland, say her response to the refugee crisis in 2015 – and since – ticks every box of how not to govern
Even she struggled to sound convincing on Monday evening as she dubbed the deal – to save her political alliance, coalition and grip on power – a “really good compromise”.
CSU leader Horst Seehofer, who had threatened to resign as interior minister unless he got powers to expel asylum seekers registered elsewhere, said the plan he had secured for his party was “everything we wanted”.
Hammering home the humiliation for the chancellor, Mr Seehofer added that it was “sometimes worthwhile to stick to one’s principles”.
Principles were in short supply in recent days during a migrant row that, in reality, was a brutal power play in Germany’s centre-right. And it’s not over.
Like last week’s European Union political deal on migration, Monday night’s coalition-saving deal may yet emerge to be hot air – or what the Germany’s call a Luftnummer.
Previous migration compromises between the two sister parties evaporated in a cloud of contradiction and there is no reason to assume this time it will be different. More importantly, Angela Merkel’s rivals have developed a taste for blood and, with the chancellor now wounded in the water, they want more, even if they will bide their time.
The CSU assault has rallied Merkel supporters who still like her pragmatic politics: able to react to events, adapt to new facts and subsume others’ positions in pursuit of an honourable win – or a face-saving compromise for all.
But Angela Merkel’s knows that support in her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) is no longer absolute. In a recent parliamentary party discussion on migrants, none of her own MPs backed her 2015 refugee response. A wounded, defensive Merkel, attendees said afterward, insisted she had done the best she could in an unprecedented – some would say no-win – situation.
And when the initial crisis passed, with do-nothing EU colleagues attacking the German leader’s refugee strategy as a unilateral insult, she reminded her MPs how she brought in Brussels to seal subsequent agreements with Turkey and others to throttle the migrant flow to Europe.
Asked about this on Sunday, Merkel refused again to admit she made any mistakes in 2015. But her German critics, led by the thriving far-right Alternative für Deutschland, say her response to the refugee crisis in 2015 – and since – ticks every box of how not to govern: a reactive sum of political tactics that work in the moment but don’t amount to a long-term societal strategy.
What did she think was going to happen, they ask, allowing in more than a million people with very different cultures, people that ran the gamut from fleeing refugees to economic migrants?
Merkel’s legacy is linked forever to a risky poker game in 2015, and a refugee hand she played on a principled hunch
In the subsequent three years, terrorist attacks, assaults, rapes and murders – though statistically irrelevant in the bigger picture – have rattled Germans’ confidence.
Some feel naive for being so welcoming, others annoyed that their deep cultural need for control and order have, as they see it, been trampled on by some new arrivals, disregarded by politicians and now lies in the corner, a half-dead wreck.
Merkel’s legacy is linked forever to a risky poker game in 2015, and a refugee hand she played on a principled hunch. But not enough EU players joined up, leaving her struggling ever since as a new generation of political leaders emerge.
Many of these are eager to play political poker by new table rules: variations on nationalism, populism and Trump-style winner-takes-all politics. This may bring renewal, or leave the postwar order a half-dead wreck.
And for Merkel, she succeeded on many fronts but, ultimately, failed the young politician who vowed to break her addiction to power before the personal cost became too great.