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Analysis: Did Merkel bring this on herself?

Michaela Küfner
June 15, 2018

Angela Merkel has gone from defender of the rule-based international order at the G7 to struggling to hold her own government together. The timing is a surprise; the fact that her migration policy is the cause isn't.

Angela Merkel sits alone
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/S. Stache

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the EU's longest-serving head of government, is known for sitting out political crises and power struggles. But she's visibly struggling this time, and significant damage has been done to her leadership. Ultimately, the very way Merkel does politics is at the core of this sudden eruption of resentment from within her own Christian Democrats (CDU).

What happened?

Merkel's interior minister, Horst Seehofer — also leader of the CDU sister party in Bavaria, the tough-on-migrants Christian Social Union — is threatening to use his ministerial authority against Merkel's migration policy. On Monday, he plans to decide if and when he will issue an order to start rejecting asylum seekers at Germany's borders, if they lack valid identity papers or are already registered in another EU country.

Read more: Bavarian conservative CSU defies Angela Merkel on migration policy

Deutsche Welle Michaela Kuefner, TV Portrait
Michaela Küfner is an expert on German and international politics and is based in BerlinImage: DW/B. Geilert

Seehofer's threat has forced Merkel's hand and saw her promise something she didn't want, and probably won't be able to deliver: a set of bilateral asylum agreements with other EU states in time for the upcoming EU summit on June 28.

Going down the bilateral road goes against her declared aim from day one of the migration crisis in 2015: to find a common European approach, instead of having every country go it alone.

Meanwhile, Germany's enthusiasm for taking in more than 1 million refugees over the last three years has turned sour. A recent Deutschlandtrend poll suggests some 86 percent of Germans want to see swifter repatriation of migrants whose asylum applications have been rejected; 62 percent are in favor of rejecting entry to migrants without papers.

Out of touch

The leader of Merkel's unenthusiastic coalition partner, the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), felt the need to come to Merkel's defense against her own sister party, only highlighting the depth of this crisis. Yet the SPD and the CSU have one thing in common: both see Merkel as being out of touch with public sentiment.

Throughout last year's election campaign, SPD leader Andrea Nahles time and time again accused Merkel of ignoring the concerns of regular Germans, of stressing the country's bright economic performance while disregarding society's growing inequalities.

On Thursday, Bavaria's CSU State Premier Markus Söder accused Merkel of being out of touch on migration, saying Germans deserved to "finally have real change in asylum policy." His comments omit a key fact: Merkel's gradual shift from her open-door migrant policy in 2015 toward her support for stricter asylum policy. Financial aid for migrants has dropped, and the number of nations declared as "safe countries of origin" has increased.

Read more: Opinion: Germany is trapped in a 'credibility showdown'

End of credibility?

Söder has said the ongoing "asylum tourism" meant Merkel's coalition government is "nearing the endgame when it comes to our credibility." Merkel's popularity is built on that very credibility, and it has carried her through many sticky moments — like the 2008 financial crisis, when she averted a bank run by assuring Germans their savings were safe.

Merkel's calm demeanor has often helped gloss over the fact that she has declared grand policies without following through, like her sudden departure from nuclear energy and the radical energy transition toward renewables — still a legal labyrinth.

But within her own party, Merkel is known for taking allies and adversaries by surprise. Her critics hold her responsible for the gradual erosion of the CDU's conservative profile since 2005. Suddenly dropping her opposition to same-sex marriage last June was only the icing on what some perceive to be an increasingly left-leaning cake. To her critics, the migration crisis is another such case — with even greater implications for the public's support for the CDU and the CSU.

Depending on who you ask, leading members of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party will admit that the migration crisis has in some way fueled their comeback from near political oblivion in 2015. No surprise, then, that the CSU sees Merkel as responsible for the existential threat it faces in Bavaria's October election.

Germans differ on CDU-CSU rift

Panic and calm

On Friday, a satirical tweet suggesting Seehofer had unilaterally ended the CDU-CSU party alliance was breaking news in several publications before corrections were run. This brief panic has captured the jittery mood in Berlin.

By contrast, Merkel appeared to be business-as-usual in the face of the most brazen attack to date from critics within her own camp, once again sending the familiar message that things will be just fine. And they may very well be. But there can be no doubt: the damage has been done.

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