Just as she marks the tenth anniversary of her tenure as chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel is confronted with a crisis—one whose magnitude diminishes others she has encountered over the past decade. It is not a particularly pleasant way to mark that ten-year milestone.
Elected for the first time in September of 2005, Chancellor Merkel has chalked up three straight victories and is clearly the strongest leader in Europe today. No other major country leader can match that. She has governed Germany as it gained both in economic strength and political clout in Europe. According to Forbes Magazine, Merkel has been the most powerful woman on the planet for ten years running. And she will in all probability be reelected in 2017 for a fourth term, if she chooses to run. That would permit her to match the sixteen-year record Helmut Kohl set in 1998. Merkel also enjoys an overwhelming parliamentary majority in the coalition she governs.
Yet all those skills and advantages are being put to the hardest test now, as the tidal wave of the refugee crisis rolls over Europe and into Germany with enormous consequences.
Shouldering a Burden
With an expectation of close to a million refugees seeking asylum in Germany this year alone, the challenges ahead are formidable. In contrast to the response of several other countries, Merkel opened Germany’s gates to thousands of Syrians, Libyans, and other victims of conflict-ridden regions. She effectively waived long-standing barriers to those fleeing their homes and sent a message that they are welcome in Germany. “We can manage this,” she proclaimed in the Bundestag and to her public. Yet that message was to spread like wildfire among the desperate refugees, who now begin setting their course to get to the German border in any way possible.
While the efforts to manage the flood of refugees was already both difficult and controversial, its continuing escalation in the past week caused the chancellor to have second thoughts. The order went out from Berlin to install selected border controls to regain some semblance of order over the crisis unfolding around Germany.
While some were quick to criticize the chancellor for having made too much happen too quickly, the majority of Germans expressed their support for her message. Many Germans have welcomed the refugees at train stations and still others volunteer to help them to find their way as they arrive. Of course, a backlash is also occurring among right-wing groups and on the internet in Germany, as it has elsewhere in Europe.
Merkel has been clear that Germany will not shoulder the main burden alone and that a coherent and coordinated European response is required. But despite her efforts, as well as efforts from some other EU member countries and European Commission president Jean-Claude Junker, there is little sign that a consensus is emerging among the twenty-eight member states. In fact, concern is growing that the refugee crisis could turn out to be a historic test for the European Union to sustain its commitments to its mission and goals. And there are some who believe that the test could fail if each state turns to its own methods of dealing with the refugees, thereby undermining the fundamental confidence needed to sustain a common approach across Europe. Some critics have already predicted that the Greek crisis has undermined trust in the EU to solve its challenges. While the German approach to the Greek debt crisis was a source of anger with Germany and its leaders, the response to the refugee crisis has seemed to throw a very different spotlight on Berlin, and on Merkel in particular. Gone are the posters of Merkel with a Hitler-style mustache, replaced by refugees holding up flattering pictures of the chancellor on their way to Germany. Arguments about the positive impact of a wave of migrants coming into Germany to help the country deal with its demographic decline or contribute to a booming economy are circulating in the press.
But that is a long-term view. The short-term problem is to find ways to house thousands of people steaming into towns and villages. There have already been too many cases of demonstrations and even arson attacks on some asylum centers in Germany. What are we to expect if the number of migrants continues to increase exponentially?
The Politics of Crisis
Merkel’s huge popularity in Germany will be severely tested in the coming months—as will the ability of the European Union to act as a real union. Merkel may see an opportunity to re-forge the European Union’s sense of purpose and identity. Some around her have suggested that Germany is copying the (complicated) role of the United States as a mecca for migrants in Europe. Yet Merkel is well aware that Germany can’t do this alone and that a European response is going to be needed in the coming months, years, and even generations to deal with this movement of people, the likes of which have not been seen since the end of World War II. And indeed, the moral responsibility Germany carries with it in dealing with this crisis is unique.
During her ten years in office, Angela Merkel has repeatedly demonstrated her skills as a tactician, one who knows how to read her public and steer through political storms. Some criticize her for developing strategies out of situations instead of the other way around. But her method has been successful in three coalitions and potentially in a fourth—perhaps with the Greens as yet another partner after the next election. Her current path through this migration crisis could lay the groundwork for that option.
At the moment, however, that is not on the radar screen in Berlin. Both Europe’s structure and its sense of unity are at stake now. The centrifugal forces of national interests are constraining an effective response to the crisis. In the UK, the fear of a right-wing backlash (UKIP) moved David Cameron to limit the British role in the EU’s response, while in Hungary, Viktor Orban has his eye on the right-wing party (Jobbik). Mariano Rajoy in Spain is also worried about upcoming elections, when making hard decisions can lead to losses at the polls.
Other nations are also hesitant. The inability of the EU to reach a consensus this week—again—is another indication of the slow pace of decision-making among twenty-eight very nervous countries. The pressure of domestic politics is again contributing to a paralysis on mutual interests.
An Historical Imperative
Chancellor Merkel now has another crisis in her inbox to deal with—at home and on the continent. After the financial meltdown, she has been confronted by Ukraine, then Greece, and now refugees. As a facilitator/negotiator through crises, she has proven herself adept. As a politician, she has demonstrated her flexibility as well as her ability to persuade voters to trust her through three consecutive elections. Facing this current crisis, she has demonstrated compassion in the face of controversy and criticism. Perhaps some of this reminds her of the rush to freedom in 1989 among her East German friends and neighbors. Perhaps seeing a barbed wire wall go up on the Hungarian border reminded her of other unpleasant memories.
But those memories might also remind her and other Europeans what came out of that crisis a quarter of a century ago: an expanded, certainly changed, and clearly challenged European Union. This crisis can also change and challenge Europeans again if they can avoid turning inward. It might also remind Europeans that they have the capacity, the resources, and the shared strategic interests to help shape solutions rather than revert to protecting themselves.
Despite the polemics of those who want to place blame at others’ feet—including the U.S.’—it is war, persecution, and the brutality of the Bashar al-Assad regime and ISIL that have caused this crisis. It is the uncertainty caused by chaos for millions of people that forced them to seek refuge. Europe today, seventy years after its worst war in history, is itself evidence of the possibility of overcoming that fate. But that Europe had help in restoring itself to what it stands for from the United States. The challenges today will need the resources and the capabilities of both Europe and the U.S. to meet the challenges of another region in dire need of help.
As Washington watches this crisis and the efforts to manage it, there is worry that an unraveling of Europe around this issue could be contagious. While the United States is struggling to rebalance its own priorities and resources in the global arena, it needs European partners who are capable of focusing on other fires elsewhere: in Syria and the broader Middle East; in Ukraine, where the conflict could cause a split in Europe on dealing with Putin and even weaken or undermine NATO’s credibility; and in Iran, where securing the viability of the nuclear agreement require sustained commitment from all the European partners to hold Tehran accountable.
Germany—the ground zero of a terrible war seven decades ago—has turned out to be the leader of a European effort today. Chancellor Merkel has an opportunity—indeed a necessity—to lead it.