Angela Merkel, a decade in power: Could Germany's controversial open-door refugee policy bring about her downfall?

In the final part of our series, Tony Paterson considers whether the German Chancellor has bitten off more than she can chew, especially in light of the Paris attacks

Tony Paterson
Thursday 19 November 2015 19:34
Peter Wilde’s ‘60 Merkels’ at the Berliner Liste art fair in Berlin
Peter Wilde’s ‘60 Merkels’ at the Berliner Liste art fair in Berlin

It was hardly an auspicious beginning to the week leading up to this Sunday’s tenth anniversary of Angela Merkel’s taking office, when the politician’s admirers will quietly celebrate a decade of her uninterrupted reign as German Chancellor, if not “Queen of Europe”.

For a few tense hours on Tuesday her intelligence services became convinced the terror of Paris was about to spread to Germany, and that the Chancellor was a target.

The warning came as Merkel sat in a plane on her way to Hannover, where she had been due to watch a Germany-Holland friendly football match. The game was supposed to be a gesture of public defiance against the terrorists who committed the atrocities in France, and Merkel was due to meet the German team – who had the previous Friday been forced to spend the night in the Stade de France after the suicide bombers’ attacks.

Now, German intelligence warned, terrorists planned to smuggle explosives into the Hanover soccer stadium in an ambulance and detonate several bombs. The ringleader planned to film the attack. Merkel took her Interior Minister’s advice and cancelled the match before flying back to Berlin. In a statement later she said she “was sure” cancelling the game was the right decision.

In the event, police failed to find any explosives in or around Hanover. Yet Germany’s security services remain on high alert and continue to speak of the “serious terrorist threat” facing the country. Tensions in Germany have been further heightened by reports that one of the Isis terrorists who attacked the French capital had entered Europe from Syria, posing as a refugee.

In Germany such reports inevitably put the spotlight on Merkel’s controversial “open-door” policy, which is expected to result in an influx of well over one million refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq this year alone. Even before Paris, Merkel faced mounting public discontent and growing rebellion over the issue from within the ranks of her own Christian Democrats, with MPs demanding that Germany halt the “uncontrolled influx” by closing its eastern borders.

The Paris attacks have exacerbated Merkel’s problems, prompting demands that the German army be deployed along the country’s borders for the first time in several decades. “Paris has changed everything,” insisted Marcus Söder, a leading member of the Bavarian sister party to the Chancellor’s Christian Democrats, which has been highly critical of her refugee policies. Mr Söder and other senior conservatives in Berlin are currently demanding that Germany regain the ability to close its borders. “If we don’t then voters will lose their confidence in the Chancellor,” warned the Christian Democrat MP Klaus Peter-Willsch last week. It was the first time since the beginning of Germany’s refugee crisis in September that one of Merkel’s MPs has openly suggested that the Chancellor risks being ousted by voters if she persists with her controversial stance.

Yet his remarks were merely the tip of an iceberg of opposition that Merkel now faces. Opinion polls show that a majority of Germans are unhappy with her refugee policies. The number of far-right attacks on asylum homes and individual refugees has topped 500 this year. Merkel’s conservative party grass roots are up in arms; at a meeting of the party faithful in the east German town of Schkeuditz last month she was confronted with placards that read “Stop the refugee chaos” and “De-throne Merkel”.

Angela Merkel poses for a selfie with a refugee after visiting a shelter for migrants in Berlin

Opinion polls show that Germany’s new and increasingly xenophobic Alternative für Deutschland party could win as much as 10 per cent of the vote nationally. Such an outcome would make it Germany’s third-main political party. In the meantime, to Germany’s dismay, the European Union has done little to help share the refugee burden.

Yet Merkel has doggedly refused to consider an upper limit to the number of refugees Germany is prepared to accept, and continues to insist: “Wir schaffen das” – “We can do it”. Merkel now faces the most difficult challenge of her 10 years as Chancellor. One of the few safeguards against her being ousted from power is the absence of any rival political figure with the stature needed to replace her. She has made sure of that.

But her open-door refugee policy itself represented a formidable U-turn by Merkel. As recently as July she was castigated for reducing a teenage Palestinian girl to tears after telling her she could not stay in Germany. “ If I say you can all come and you all come – we just can’t manage that,” the Chancellor insisted.

What induced Merkel to change her mind? Sources within her government say the dramatically growing volume of refugees heading for Europe this summer was one factor. Another was that with one of the lowest birth rates in the world, 600,000 job vacancies and a booming economy, Germany could not only cope with an influx of mostly educated refugees from countries like Syria – it also needed them.

But earlier this month Merkel put forward another, perhaps more convincing, argument. She told party members that if Germany were to close its doors to the refugee tide, it would trigger a chain reaction in an already volatile Balkan region that could lead to war. “I don’t want there to be another military confrontation down there,” she insisted.

Seasoned Merkel observers such as the Berlin politics professor Herfried Münkler say that she opened the door to refugees “without a plan”. She now faces a divided government and forces within it bent on stopping the refugee influx. The odds seem stacked against her. Her future as Chancellor will depend on her ability to defeat her critics both in Germany and Europe by turning a refugee “crisis” into a success story. Not a few say that this time, Angela Merkel may have bitten off more than even she can chew.

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