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Is this the beginning of the end of Merkel?

Once the most powerful leader in Europe, the German chancellor’s future is on a knife-edge

- By Matthew Qvortrup ■ Matthew Qvortrup is the author of Angela Merkel: Europe’s Most Influentia­l Leader.

Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, used to be viewed like the German football team — invincible, with exceptiona­l technical skill and a steely determinat­ion that always prevailed. Or, to use another metaphor, her style of governing was reminiscen­t of the slogan of car manufactur­er Audi, Vorsprung Durch Technik: “Advantage through technical prowess.”

But all things must come to an end. Last month, Audi’s CEO Rupert Stadler was arrested for his alleged role in the Volkswagen Group’s diesel cheating scandal. And we all know what happened to Joachim Low’s German team in the World Cup.

Twelve years ago, Merkel summoned a crestfalle­n Jurgen Klinsmann for a dressing down after Germany lost a match to Italy. Back then, “Mutti” (mother) was in full control of her party, her country and the European Union. She could dictate that Britain gave up part of the EU budget rebate negotiated by former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher. She could also demand of Klinsmann that Germany did not play a 4-4-2 formation in the 2006 World Cup.

Merkel’s passion for football is wellknown. When she and her fellow G7 leaders were watching the Champions League final between Chelsea and Bayern Munich in 2012, she taught the then United States president, Barack Obama, to say “schei_e” when the Bavarians missed a penalty. Now, though, she has a bigger fish to fry. After almost 13 years in power, time is rapidly running out for the German chancellor.

Nowhere was her diminishin­g influence more evident than at last week’s EU leaders’ summit. Where once Merkel commanded the floor and had other leaders practicall­y queuing up to kiss her hand, this time it was she who came with the begging bowl, and all but implored her colleagues to find a solution to the immigratio­n problem that could save her political skin. Gone was the confident chancellor, usually front and centre in photograph­s in her usual pose: eyes straight ahead, hands clasped in front of her. Instead, she looked away.

Open defiance

The cause of Merkel’s woe is Horst Seehofer — Interior Minister and leader of her Bavarian sister party, the CSU (Christian Social Union). Seehofer has openly defied the chancellor and threatened to close the Bavarian borders. He threatened to begin the repatriati­on of failed asylum-seekers if she did not find a solution in Brussels.

Perhaps unsurprisi­ngly, then, Merkel was held to ransom by Giuseppe Conte, Italy’s new Prime Minister, over his demands for a tougher immigratio­n policy. Merkel gave in. That is telling. In 2011, she effectivel­y caused the downfall of Silvio Berlusconi when she refused to give more money to his spendthrif­t administra­tion. Yet, the leaders seemingly took the first steps towards a European solution on refugees.

History will record Merkel’s role in averting the worst economic crisis since 1929. When the world’s financial system faced meltdown in 2008, Merkel read the public mood, and limited bankers’ bonuses.

However, it is too simplistic to cite the refugee crisis in 2015 as the beginning of her downfall. Germany was always split over taking in close to one million refugees. Yet, the issue has become totemic for Merkel. Before 2015, she had never visited a refugee centre, but suddenly she was speaking passionate­ly about the duty to “love thy neighbour”. Merkel might yet survive as chancellor. She might try to engineer a transfer of power to her preferred successor, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbaue­r, the CDU general secretary. But this could be difficult. Once, Merkel controlled the party and politician­s were seeking to be anointed by her. That was then. This is now. It might well be time to say, “Auf Wiedersehe­n, Mutti” (goodbye mum).

— The Telegraph Group Limited,

London 2018

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