Is An­gela Merkel on the way out?

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

Henry Kissinger’s ques­tion some years ago, “If I want to talk to Europe who do I call?” to­day has an an­swer. It is un­der­stood that Ger­many, and par­tic­u­larly An­gela Merkel, is at the cen­tre of what­ever de­ci­sion mak­ing can claim a Euro­pean di­men­sion. For­get Cyprus and the many other smaller coun­tries. Their part in Euro­pean de­ci­sion mak­ing is largely “the­o­ret­i­cal”.

An­gela Merkel is the de facto leader, not only for the Eu­ro­zone but the en­tire Euro­pean Union. Whether it is the lat­est Greek cri­sis, Crimea, Ukraine or refugees, An­gela (or “Mum” as she is known) has shep­herded Europe’s widely di­verse coun­tries into some sem­blance of a com­mon front, for the most part suc­cess­fully. But there is a limit. Euro­pean crises are be­com­ing more fre­quent and more se­ri­ous. Un­doubt­edly the most chal­leng­ing is the re­cent wave of refugees from the Mid­dle East to­ward Europe.

Frau Merkel’s hasty prom­ise to ad­mit 800,000 such refugees into Ger­many this year was a dar­ing com­mit­ment heard around the world, par­tic­u­larly in the Syr­ian refugee camps. Ger­man cit­i­zens also heard the in­vi­ta­tion, prompt­ing an un­prece­dented slide in her pop­u­lar­ity. Ger­man politi­cians heard it ini­ti­at­ing a spilt be­tween her party and her po­lit­i­cal al­lies. Shortly af­ter the an­nounce­ment, the head of the Ger­man depart­ment pro­cess­ing th­ese mi­grants re­signed, with 360,000 asy­lum ap­pli­ca­tions still pend­ing.

The prob­lem might still be man­age­able if the cur­rent in­flux were the end of it. Clearly it is not. The Euro­pean re­sponse to the refugee prob­lem ap­pears to be a case of short term think­ing to what prom­ises to be a long term prob­lem. Syria, the source of most asy­lum seek­ers to­day, is a rel­a­tively small coun­try of roughly 22 mln (be­fore the ex­o­dus). Its mi­grants have nev­er­the­less threat­ened to over­whelm the abil­ity of Ger­many and other EU coun­tries to ab­sorb them. The UN pre­dicts that next year will see more of the same.

That is cer­tainly not the end of the story. Sec­tar­ian con­flict is spread­ing through­out the Mid­dle East. The po­ten­tial for fu­ture mi­gra­tions is by no means lim­ited to the present na­tional sources. To cite just one ex­am­ple, Egypt with a pop­u­la­tion more than four times that of Syria is per­ilously close to the sort of sec­tar­ian con­flict be­hind the present wave of refugees.

The cur­rent news has been all about the mi­grants com­ing through Tur­key. There is less fo­cus now on mi­grants com­ing across the Mediter­ranean from North Africa to Italy. The long term po­ten­tial for mi­grants along this route is enor­mous. Im­prov­ing roads, trans­port and com­mu­ni­ca­tions now en­able an in­creas­ing num­ber of young per­sons, dis­cour­aged with their own govern­ments and prospects to see Europe as the promised land. Th­ese are long term trends. New bor­der fences and tran­sit cen­tres are not a long term so­lu­tion.

An­gela Merkel has shown not only lead­er­ship but hu­man­ity in de­fend­ing the in­flux of refugees. Her skill in tread­ing the thin line be­tween rec­on­cil­ing Ger­man vot­ers with the crises and changes buf­fet­ing the EU has been leg­endary. But, she is now vul­ner­a­ble. The abil­ity of Ger­man refugee ser­vices, bud­gets and ed­u­ca­tional fa­cil­i­ties are un­der enor­mous strain. Fairly or not, she will bear the po­lit­i­cal cost of the pop­ulist back­lash which ap­pears to be gath­er­ing strength. Al­ready, her pop­u­lar­ity in the polls has dropped by an un­prece­dented 8 per­cent­age points. She has been in of­fice through most of the re­cent crises. What hap­pens if she goes?

There is no ob­vi­ous suc­ces­sor.

Yes, there is an EU Com­mis­sion and an EU Par­lia­ment that were de­signed to lead Europe. They are bu­reau­cra­cies which have proved un­equal to the task. They have done what bu­reau­cra­cies usu­ally do. What they have not done dur­ing th­ese past few years is pro­vide the sort of lead­er­ship “Mum” has demon­strated. Even she could not have achieved what she did if she had been the leader of one of the smaller coun­tries.

Is it likely that Malta, Bel­gium, Slove­nia (can we men­tion Cyprus) could have pro­vided the Euro­pean leader? Not even if th­ese coun­tries had some­one with the nec­es­sary per­sonal char­ac­ter­is­tics would this be a re­al­is­tic pos­si­bil­ity. What the past years of tur­moil have demon­strated is that only a na­tional leader who can com­mit the re­sources of a pow­er­ful mem­ber state can pro­vide the nec­es­sary lead­er­ship.

Since Ger­many is the largest and eco­nom­i­cally most pow­er­ful and sta­ble EU coun­try, any new Euro­pean leader will most likely be of that na­tion­al­ity. This is not a very sat­is­fac­tory sit­u­a­tion. It means the lives of the 506 mln EU cit­i­zens will be heav­ily in­flu­enced by a leader rep­re­sent­ing only a small per­cent (16%) of the to­tal EU pop­u­la­tion. An even smaller per­cent­age if the new leader were to come from France or Italy.

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