How Merkel became the EU’s conscience
Open-door policy transformed chancellor’s image, but threatens to divide Europe
BERLIN— It was when the numbers became faces that German Chancellor Angela Merkel made a decision that could make or break her political legacy.
As she toured a refugee centre in the eastern German town of Heidenau on Aug. 26, hearing stories from Syrians about traumatic journeys to flee their civil war, protesters against their arrival jeered and shouted abuse. Some called her a “traitor to the nation.” The experience left her shaken but determined to act, according to two close Merkel aides.
What ensued was a strategy for dealing with a flood of refugees by simply letting them come. While her open-door policy transformed her image almost overnight from the scourge of the Greeks into the conscience of Europe, it threatens to split the continent and presents a domestic high-wire balancing act even more dramatic than the euro crisis.
“If we now have to start apologizing for showing a friendly face in response to an emergency situation, then that’s not my country,” Merkel said at a news conference in Berlin on Tuesday.
Germany, already a magnet for job seekers from Spain, Greece and Italy, became the destination of choice for refugees as word got out they were welcome.
Interior Ministry estimates of 800,000 of them this year became one million arrivals in a forecast this week by vice-chancellor Sigmar Ga- briel, but not all will end up staying.
While Germany’s economic growth and near-record low unemployment gave Merkel some breathing space, her European counterparts were already struggling with sluggish economies and angry constituents.
She called for European “solidarity,” echoing words she used during the debt crisis as shorthand for a financial rescue.
This time, she meant a fair distribution of refugees among EU member states.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban was having none of it. Hungary, which is one of the main EU arrival points along with Italy and Greece, has blocked thousands of refugees on its borders.
For the Lutheran pastor’s daughter, the refugee crisis is a humanitarian catastrophe that must be addressed. It also could be a defining moment that offers a chance to permanently alter Germany’s image as the cold head, rather than the heart, of Europe. “She sees perhaps an opportunity here to appeal not only to other EU leaders, but to send the more general message that we are bigger and better than this,” said Jackson Janes, president of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies in Washington.
“But this could also be another of her efforts to rally the EU, after a long bad patch with Greece where Merkel made a lot of people angry.”
Merkel, 61, may have bought some time with the reintroduction of some border controls and she has public opinion on her side for now. While 35 per cent of respondents said Germany is being overwhelmed by refugees, 62 per cent said the country can handle the influx, according to a Sept. 8-10 FG Wahlen voter poll for ZDF television.
Yet as she listens to warnings about driving voters into the arms of the far right, it’s still by no means certain she’ll be able to carry the German people with her. Ten years in office and midway through her third term, the refugee crisis might be the Teflon chancellor’s undoing as the nation heads toward the 2017 election.
Angela Merkel, seen on a poster held by a migrant girl, called for European “solidarity” in dealing with the crisis.