Is Angela Merkel on the way out?
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.