How Merkel be­came the EU’s con­science

Open-door pol­icy trans­formed chan­cel­lor’s im­age, but threat­ens to di­vide Europe

Toronto Star - - REFUGEE CRISIS - ARNE DELFS AND ALAN CRAW­FORD BLOOMBERG

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.

BER­NADETT SZ­ABO/REUTERS FILE PHOTO

An­gela Merkel, seen on a poster held by a mi­grant girl, called for Euro­pean “sol­i­dar­ity” in deal­ing with the cri­sis.

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