Postwar German Chancellors are made to last. Despite nearing eleven years as Berlin’s Head of Government, Angela Merkel still trails far behind her Christian Democrat predecessors Helmut Kohl (16 years, 1982-1998) and Konrad Adenauer (14 years, 1949-1963) in the longevity stakes. As far as achievement goes, however, she ranks with the very best. In her period of office, Merkel has overseen the ascent of Germany to a position of undisputed political and economic dominance in Europe and, in the process, has cemented herself as the unchallengeable and incorruptible master of German politics, bestriding like a Colossus the vast assortment of parties and interests that populate today’s political landscape. Small wonder, then, that Germans endearingly refer to her solely as ‘Mutti’.
Yet Merkel’s response to the European refugee crisis has for the first time generated calls for her head, both outside and inside her own Christian Democratic Union (CDU). Her response has been uncharacteristically aggressive in style, even if she has in part sought to mollify critics through policy concessions. But the criticisms have not abated. So are they merely empty talk: a brazen attempt by critics of her policy to draw political blood? Or has the refugee crisis in Germany – so intimately tied to Merkel’s name – proved so tumultuous that her longstanding mastery of that country’s political culture is now jeopardised? Are we, in short, witnessing Europe’s premier political figure on the back foot?
For all their variability, the published opinion polls tell a predictable story. Merkel’s satisfaction ratings took a dramatic dive throughout January, when revelations about the New Year’s sexual attacks in Cologne dominated the German media. Her 46% rating was her lowest since August 2011, at the height of the Greek debt crisis. This decline followed a more gradual descent throughout the latter half of 2015, as the refugee crisis assumed ever-greater prominence within German news media. Nevertheless, the point of comparison for Merkel was the unseasonably high approval ratings from which she fell: in the estimates of public broadcaster ARD, in the high 60s as of July 2015; a remarkable level for any democratic leader, especially one in power for some ten years.
There is an obvious correlation between refugee policy and personal satisfaction rating: the same poll had 59% of respondents reporting dissatisfaction with Merkel’s handling of the crisis, with only 39% in favour. What is clear from these figures is that while Merkel is ineluctably associated in many German minds with the refugee problem itself, her personal popularity continues to outshine that of her policy.
Some of Merkel’s defenders have argued that the criticisms being levelled at her are of less substance than those engendered by the European sovereign debt crisis four years ago, when concentrated condemnations of the German Chancellor issued from left and right alike. Vitriolic though they often were, however, such attacks were of a markedly different nature to those we see today, and directed toward different objectives altogether. In large part, they concerned Germany’s central role in the European Union, forming part of a wider debate of competing visions for Europe. By contrast, the question of immigration seems to boil down much more to personal values and conviction, and in this way penetrates more deeply the political sentiments of the German electorate, not to mention the political faultlines that lie beneath it.
This is what makes immigration so dangerous for Merkel. Even if immigration lags far behind the economy as an electoral priority for most of the population (see below), the topic lends itself to powerful political rhetoric. While the anti-austerity movements of 2011-12 quickly fizzled out, far-right platforms such as Pegida and the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party, trading on anti-immigration sentiments, have continued to expand. In mid-March, the AfD made huge inroads in regional elections, sucking swathes of votes both from Merkel’s CDU and her Social Democrat opponents. It is this – the clear translation of protest sentiment into votes for the political extremes – that has conferred upon the previous months’ attacks on Merkel a certain existential peril.
It is a valid criticism of much political coverage that it concerns itself with politics over policy, surface over substance. But in this instance, some of the sharpest critiques of Merkel have been political in nature. Critics with such force as Horst Seehofer, the vocal Minister President of Bavaria and leading figure in the CDU’s sister CSU (Christian Social Union) party, have focussed especially upon the political consequences of Merkel’s policy: of the manner in which it has energised and legitimated the claims of the far-right. To Seehofer and other leading German conservatives, the political imperative of the CDU and CSU has always been to immunise their right wings against precisely these movements.
So what of Merkel herself? The fact that the refugee crisis is said to be her most central challenge is telling. It has again catapulted into the forefront of political analysis the ambivalence Germans tend to feel towards their Chancellor’s politics. Some have praised her for finally exhibiting a trace of conviction, seeing in her subsequent obstinacy some markers of leadership largely absent in the first ten years of her rule. Others, however, have been more cynical, holding her response to the refugee crisis to be little more than another opportunistic political calculation, and one very much in line with her previous long-term political strategy.
Understanding this strategy is critical in grasping both Merkel’s popularity and the complexity of the refugee debate within German political culture. By this view, Merkel’s stance on the refugee crisis is an attempt to remain in line with her long-term policy of occupying the political centre and adopting centrist and centre-left policies, reaching out to a wider populace while continuing to satisfy conservative demands. In itself this is a remarkable political achievement. For much of her rule, she has redefined the boundaries of political parties in Germany, dragging her Christian Democratic Party leftwards and eating into votes hitherto reserved for the opposing Social Democrats. In a recent interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung, Merkel reaffirmed the fundamental centralising role she sees her Party as holding. The tension at the heart of this strategy is immediately transparent when contrasted with the strategic view of Seehofer outlined earlier – moving leftwards inevitably generates space on the right, giving oxygen to precisely those far-right movements and platforms that the Bavarian leader so fears.
It is equally difficult to disentangle Merkel’s motivations for her stance on the refugee crisis from the complex questions of leadership and legacy that it raises. Merkel’s unwavering refrain ‘wir schaffen das!’ (‘we can do it!’) has been viewed by some as a revelation of her deeply-held values; by others as an example of her political stubbornness; and by others still as a cynical manoeuvre aimed solely at securing her political legacy, both at the German and international levels. So who is right?
One conspicuous aspect of Merkel media coverage is the paucity of biographical information available. Facts are often plucked from what is known of her story and inserted into a causal nexus, with varying degrees of plausibility. The refugee crisis has been a case in point. Here, numerous columns have been written about the apparent influence of Merkel’s East German upbringing upon her policy. The experience of living in a Christian community within a world divided by walls, so goes the narrative, left an indelible imprint on the future Chancellor’s conscience, transcendent of the pragmatic calculations and political games that have hitherto characterised her tenure. However, there is scant evidence for this. Before 1989, Merkel was hardly a vocal critic of the GDR, much less an activist, and there is no good reason to assume that this issue alone should stand independent of the complex political constellations within which she operates.
But even if the argument from history is scratchy at best, Merkel’s unwavering attitude on the question of refugees, and her clear language on the issue, suggest a level of conviction somewhat atypical of her political persona. Refugee policy, it seems, had entered Merkel’s mind long before it entered the mass media. While her handling of the situation may be beneficial to her political power long-term, there is much to suggest that her politics are indeed informed by personal beliefs.
The very fact that debate exists at all about Merkel’s convictions is telling. Her calm tactics and perseverance have traditionally made her a difficult target of attack. She has tended to force her critics into a waiting position, meaning that criticism of her leadership has in large part been limited to non-lethal accusations of indecisiveness. But where her critics have seen indecision, her supporters have seen composure and consistency: key ingredients in the high levels of trust the German electorate has placed in her. The public persona she has long cultivated has relied overwhelmingly on this. Is it to be celebrated or condemned? On the one hand, her approach seems well-suited to the type of centrist, consensual, pragmatic technocrat demanded by post-ideological politics. On the other, critics have accused her of lacking spine, conviction and belief, of being overwilling to rely on opinion polling and lukewarm consensus. With good results, this approach is hard to criticise. When it produces surprises, however, it is left with few supporters.
Nevertheless, fears of a far-right resurgence in Germany are greatly exaggerated. While scenarios of a rise of the far-right are employed by critics of Merkel (such as Seehofer) in an attempt to change the Chancellor’s stance on immigration, it must largely be seen as political manoeuvring. Despite the rhetoric of anxious conservatives, a vast gap still separates the ‘fearful citizen’ from the extremes. Moreover, the ARD poll cited earlier also reported that 83% of respondents felt ashamed of the violent protests against refugees, 76% wanted to see harsher condemnations of the attacks by leaders, while 58% expressed a desire to see foreigners and refugees better protected. The Alternative für Deutschland party, which has benefited most from the refugee crisis, is already showing the usual strains of upstart populist parties. More recently, it has shifted to an outright anti-Islamic platform. While this move will undoubtedly please the more vociferous elements of Germany’s far-right, it risks alienating many of those who oppose Merkel’s Wilkommenskultur for more pragmatic reasons, and for whom the risk of political radicalism seems too great.
Still, even granting that there does exist a deep dissatisfaction with Merkel’s policy, the impact of this upon federal voting intentions is difficult to gauge for three reasons. Firstly, polling evidence continues to suggest that refugee policy is not a first order issue for German voters (at least, so far as is possible to tell, at the federal level). Secondly, it is not just Merkel’s centre-right CDU that risks bleeding votes to such movements: the risk is equally acute for her Social Democrat opponents, whose traditional working class base has been flocking to the extremes in similar numbers (as with the United States and Britain, ‘outsider’ populism in Germany does not adhere to simple left-right binaries). And, finally, with the next Federal Election in Germany still more than one year away, the nascent right-wing platforms and parties – energised for now by minor successes but nevertheless lacking experience and organisation – arguably have a greater struggle ahead than Merkel herself. The various outlooks contained under the same political umbrella – anti-immigration, anti-asylum, anti-open door policy, anti-Islam – are not, after all, easily reconcilable in any one policy platform, while the predisposition for protest parties to collapse in on themselves (who now talks about the Pirate Party?) will be given added momentum under the pressure of a campaign.
That said, however, the potential damage of a right-wing populist movement is acute in a parliamentary system that relies on coalition dealings and negotiations. While Merkel’s stance on immigration is unlikely to threaten her leadership per se, the hope from her perspective is that by the time of next year’s election, the far-right will have deconstructed itself sufficiently so as to carry marginal or no weight in possible coalition negotiations. This might be enough to secure another term of Merkel’s Chancellorship. But her political victory may prove Pyrrhic: the anti-immigration genie is out of the bottle, and even should Merkel prove as durable as Adenauer or Kohl, the political legacy of her policy will – for good or ill – long outlive her rule.
This article was co-written with Anika Seemann of Corpus Christi College.