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27 June 2018

The great survivor: Angela Merkel’s last stand

Germany’s the lonely chancellor is under siege at home and abroad. How much longer can she keep her tormentors at bay?  

By Jeremy Cliffe

The Berlin Wall opened on a Thursday in November 1989, and Thursday night was Angela Merkel’s sauna night. So the 35-year-old quantum chemist went to her bathhouse as usual. She left at around 9pm to find crowds thronging the streets of East Berlin. Joining them, she entered the West at the Bornholmer Straße crossing and ended up at a house party near the Kurfürstendamm, where she called her aunt in Hamburg to share the news. She returned home early. After all, she had work in the morning.

Such was the modest overture to one the most remarkable careers in postwar European politics. Without the events of 9 November 1989, Merkel would probably have served out the rest of her career in an obscure lab in East Berlin and might now be travelling in California, as she hoped to do on her retirement (when certain travel restrictions on well-behaved East Germans were lifted). Instead she was propelled into the political vortex of the reunified Germany, where she rose through Helmut Kohl’s centre-right Christian Democrat Union (CDU), becoming its leader in 2000 and chancellor in 2005.

Twelve-and-a-half years on, her record is one of paradoxes. Merkel has governed Europe’s largest economy with intense restraint: postponing decisions in a process now known as “merkeln” (waiting until the last minute to make a choice), calculating and recalculating risks and acting seemingly without ideology. Yet her tenure has been marked by occasional moments of great decisiveness: ruling that Greece should remain in the euro, switching off Germany’s nuclear power stations, or letting in some 1.2 million Middle Eastern and African immigrants during the refugee crisis of 2015.

Merkel is a history nerd. She devours books on 19th century globalisation and the 20th century’s descent into barbarity. Portraits of Konrad Adenauer and Catherine the Great grace her office in the chancellery while Peter Altmaier, her closest cabinet ally and long-time chief of staff, has as many as 600 books on Bismarck alone. The chancellery in Berlin is like an insurance firm with an in-house history faculty: an overriding caution mingles with a feeling for dialectical turning points and macro-narratives.

It is in that curious atmosphere that the final chapters of the Merkel saga are now playing out. Battles over immigration policy are threatening to consume her chancellorship in what she sees as part of a wider struggle to preserve the post-1989 international order. A career created by the fall of one border is now being tested, perhaps to breaking point, by the quest to prevent new borders from rising.

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Angela Merkel’s response to the refugee crisis of 2015 was at first typical: she prevaricated as thousands fleeing conflicts in Syria and Iraq, and others simply seeking better lives in Europe, proceeded through the Balkans. When on 4 September a contingent set out westwards from Budapest by foot, she was forced to make a decision.

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After a flurry of late-night phone calls the order went out from Berlin and Vienna: the German border would stay open. Trains were provided while volunteers scrambled to help the arriving refugees and “welcome culture” was born. Merkel would later defend the decision to Viktor Orbán, the right-wing Hungarian prime minister: “I’ve lived behind a wall once in my life and have no desire to do so again.”

Since the peak of that crisis, the number of asylum seekers arriving in Germany monthly has fallen from some 200,000 at its peak to below 10,000 in May. The EU’s Dublin regime, whereby immigrants must register and stay in their country of arrival, remains dysfunctional, but the number who slip into booming Germany from states such as Italy is still manageable: 17,000 this year to date.

Contrary to recent tweets by Donald Trump, crime fell to a 25-year-low in March. The burden can be borne and will ultimately strengthen Germany’s ageing society.

Politically the picture is muddier. The British tabloid characterisation of Merkel’s Germany as a terror-plagued hellhole is nonsense, but people are anxious. Particularly in the southern state of Bavaria, the main entry point for those travelling north, some voters bridle at the failings of the Dublin system. Last summer’s election campaign saw the chancellor confronted by hecklers shouting “Merkel must go” not just in far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) strongholds in the former East Germany but even on the Marienplatz in genteel Munich. On polling day the AfD entered the Bundestag and pushed the CDU to its lowest result since 1949. Of the states of the former West Germany the AfD did best in Bavaria, where it may deny the Christian Social Union – the CDU’s more conservative and Bavaria-only sister party – its majority in the state parliament in an election in October.

That is fuelling tensions between the CDU and the CSU. The two sit in one group in the Bundestag but have squabbled throughout the refugee crisis. Panicking about a possible shellacking in October, the CSU has escalated the conflict as part of a rightwards lurch seemingly inspired by Donald Trump. Markus Söder, the wolfish new Bavarian premier, now requires all public buildings in the state to display a Christian cross and has proclaimed that “the age of ordered multilateralism is over”. Horst Seehofer, his predecessor, rival and now Germany’s federal interior minister, has declared Islam “not part of Germany” and devised a new immigration “masterplan”.


When she saw the plan earlier this month, Merkel bluntly told Seehofer to remove one of its 63 points: a proposal to turn back at German borders immigrants registered in other EU states. The CSU insists that this is essential, as such immigrants often cannot be identified and repatriated (to, say, Italy) within the time allowed by the Dublin regulations. The party’s intransigence became fully clear to the chancellor only on 13 June, when Seehofer refused to back down. The next day Bundestag business was extraordinarily suspended so the two parties could hold emergency meetings. Both hardened their positions: CDU MPs backed Merkel’s request for two weeks to find a European solution to Dublin’s failings and CSU MPs supported Seehofer’s threat to impose the new border controls unilaterally. On 18 June the CSU agreed that Merkel could have her two weeks, but no more.

The next showdown will be on 1 July, when the chancellor will report back in Berlin on her achievements at the European Council summit of 28-29 June. These may be paltry: Merkel might secure improved policing of the EU’s external borders and in the long-term “hotspots” for processing asylum claims in North Africa and the Balkans, but answers to the secondary migration (from a state of arrival to another) that offends the Bavarians will be limited. At best the chancellor can hope for the outline of bilateral deals with southern European states to trade German cash for Italian, Greek and Bulgarian pledges to help reduce secondary migration and take back secondary migrants promptly. Even this will be hard: Matteo Salvini, Italy’s new hard-right interior minister, said on 22 June that his country “cannot take one more [migrant], on the contrary, we want to hand over a few”.

So Seehofer, pressured by party colleagues, may have no choice but to turn back secondary migrants. Then Merkel would have two choices. One would be to fudge the issue, signalling her own weakness and encouraging fresh Bavarian rebellions, perhaps on the modest eurozone integration she agreed with Emmanuel Macron on 19 June. (Macron has been pushing for a unified eurozone budget and separate finance minister as part of his vision of European reform.) Her other option would be to fire Seehofer, propelling the CSU out of her CDU-Social Democrat coalition and leaving it just short of a majority. She would have to secure the support of either the centre-left Greens or the centre-right Free Democrats to continue governing without new elections.

Would Merkel survive such turmoil? For now she looks strong in her CDU, which will have the final say.

Yet loyalists fret about the array of antagonists that the chancellor now faces: the CSU’s leaders are close to Jens Spahn, the leading Merkel-sceptic in the CDU and a prospective future chancellor. Beyond Germany, the populist new Italian government and central European populists such as Orbán make it harder to forge a solution that lessens the strain on Germany. Donald Trump’s tariffs on German exports and inspiration to Europe’s rabble-rousers increase the pressure further.

Richard Grenell, the new American ambassador to Germany, sent eyebrows upwards in Berlin when he told Breitbart on 3 June: “There are a lot of conservatives throughout Europe who have contacted me to say they are feeling there is a resurgence going on […] I absolutely want to empower other conservatives throughout Europe.”

All of which helps to explain why the chancellor is so reluctant to let the ornery Bavarians have this win. She fears that a German decision to turn back migrants would prompt Austria to close its borders with Italy and Slovenia, prompting a chain of unilateral national decisions on immigration policy that bring Europe’s whole passport-free Schengen zone crashing down.

Moreover, she sees this with her historian’s hat on, as part of a broader epochal battle. For Merkel the question of whether Germany, perhaps the success story par excellence of the post-1989 liberal order, can be true to that order is a bellwether for a broader question: can the global, multilateral, seemingly post-borders settlement born on that cold November night in 1989 survive?


The chancellor was long ambivalent about running for a fourth term, but is said to have been persuaded by the election of Donald Trump in November 2016. Merkel’s world – in which her rise and that of her reunified, networked, integrated country was possible – was suddenly in peril and leaderless. She has rightly treated the idea that she can be a “new leader of the free world” with scorn. But it seems she wants to be remembered if not as the saviour of the multilateral order, then at least as its doctor.

Merkel’s G20 presidency in Hamburg last year focused on trade, the environment and Africa and, in recent weeks, she has finally confronted Germans with harsh truths about the need to increase their Nato contributions from 1.3 per cent of GDP to 1.5 per cent in 2024 and 2 per cent by 2030. And now she is determined to keep the Schengen area from collapsing, or to go down trying.

There are plenty of reasons to scoff at these efforts: Germany’s economic illiteracy in the euro crisis helped fracture a crucial block in the multilateral order; its giant trade surplus of some 8 per cent of GDP, the product of domestic under-investment, destabilises the world economy; Germany will not hit its 2020 climate targets thanks to over-reliance on coal; and its moves towards defence responsibility are too slow.

The West once had the luxury of holding such things against Germany’s chancellor. Yet today, amid a dearth of leaders, Merkel’s instinctive multilateralism, her awareness of history and her years of experience are enough to make her a natural leader. From Ukraine to the Maghreb, Europe’s periphery is in chaos; the refugee drama is unresolved. The global trading order is teetering. The post-1989 world is giving way to a darker, more uncertain age. Many may be surprised to find that they miss Angela Merkel when she is gone.

Jeremy Cliffe is Berlin bureau chief at the Economist

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This article appears in the 27 Jun 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Germany, alone