Still 'the indispensable European'?: A look at Angela Merkel's dramatic reversal of fortune

There is no more striking example of how fast political glory can fade than the astonishing and accelerating new perils facing German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Brian Stewart writes.

The German chancellor's chances of another term not looking so good

German Chancellor Angela Merkel's political fortunes have taken a turn for the worse since her government welcomed 1.1 million refugees in 2015. (Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters)

There is no more striking example of how fast political glory can fade than the astonishing and accelerating new perils facing German Chancellor Angela Merkel at home and abroad. 

Only last fall the thrice-elected chancellor of Europe's economic powerhouse was widely hailed as the moral conscience of the continent and "the indispensable European."

Merkel was applauded both for her dramatic action in the refugee crisis and her longstanding unofficial leadership role in the European Union. A Nobel Prize seemed on its way.

Chancellor Angela Merkel meets with actor George Clooney and lawyer Amal Clooney at the Federal Chancellery to talk about the refugee crisis. (Guido Bergmann/Bundesregierung via Getty Images)

Now, how to count her woes? A majority of Germans — 64 per cent, according to a recent poll — are angry enough at Merkel that they feel she shouldn't run for re-election next year and rifts are suddenly appearing in her ruling coalition government.   

Her decline has several causes, but above all, her arms-wide welcoming of 1.1 million mainly Muslim refugees last year has stirred up a furious backlash that seems to be building towards a national crisis.    

Her wounded status has encouraged rising right-wing populist parties across Europe that now excoriate her as the fading symbol of a political Euro-elite too far out of touch with reality to deserve power.

Protesters hold German flags as they take part in a demonstration against the refugee policy of the German government in Berlin on March 12. (Michael Sohn/Associated Press)

Granted, part of Merkel's newfound unpopularity is likely due to a spreading climate of nervousness and political bitterness seen virtually everywhere in Europe, not to mention the United States at the moment. Still, even political allies raise serious questions about her misjudgment of her own people. 

The chancellor does appear to have had a remarkable tin ear when she announced Germany would accept more than a million refugees without serious prior consultation with its people.

It was an admirable, boldly humane act in many ways, but could yet prove to be politically obtuse to a dangerous degree — depending on the harm caused by the backlash.

Even before Merkel's bold policy, Germany's welcome mat had worn thin, with close to half of its citizens openly dubious about letting in more Muslim refugees. But close to two-thirds of Germans now say Islam does not "belong" in Germany.

This is an extraordinarily worrisome sentiment given there are four million Muslims living in Germany, about 5% of the population. 

Even though the number of refugee arrivals has fallen sharply in recent months with tighter border controls, Merkel's historic influx had already handed an unintended bonus to anti-immigrant and anti-Islamic politicians riding a growing lurch to the political right.

Nowhere is extreme sentiment more evident than in the barely three-year-old anti-immigrant party, Alternative for Germany (AfD), which recently doubled its polling numbers to nearly 15 per cent. That's enough in Germany's complex multi-party system to command major influence in next year's election.

This is a party so extreme its recent political manifesto declared that Islam has no place in German life because it "does not correspond to our legal system and culture."

Frauke Petry, chairwoman of the anti-immigration party Alternative for Germany (AfD), speaks during the AfD congress in Stuttgart on April 30. (REUTERS)

The party also demands a ban on Islamic symbols in public, including the wearing of burkas and even the building of minaret towers on mosques.

"It is the first time since Hitler's Germany that there is a party which discredits and essentially threatens an entire religious community," Airman Mazyek, chairman of the Central Council of Muslims in Germany, warned in a broadcast. 

Anti-immigrant sentiment is even finding support within some mainstream parties like the pro-business Free Democratic Party, where three-quarters of members expressed similar resistance to the influx of Muslims. 

The most extreme opinions are paraded in the streets during protests of far-right movements like PEGIDA ("Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West"), notorious for its sometimes violent clashes with pro-immigrant groups and police.

German police clash with anti-Islam protesters


5 years ago
Riot police use water cannons to disperse an anti-immigration protest in Cologne 1:00

Feelings are so raw some media outlets have eliminated online discussion forums on refugee subjects because of the number of threats and insults pouring in, while German security officials warn of a wider "culture of fear" growing out of extremism.

It's an extremism that has fed on widespread worry over Islamic terrorism and crime even though it's new Muslim communities that are most under threat at the moment. There have been 137 arson attacks on refugee asylum centres since Germany opened its doors last year. 

Merkel has appeared shaken by the angry response to the refugee crisis both in Germany and the rest of Europe, admitting publicly in February, "Sometimes I also despair.  Some things go too slow…"

PEGIDA protests often result in violent clashes with pro-immigrant groups and police. (The Associated Press)

Some of that despair is likely due to Merkel's genuine surprise over the depth of xenophobic nationalism that has once again become strongly rooted in Germany, which in recent decades seemed open to the new world culture of globalization.

Even though today's Germans live in the strongest economy in Europe with the most exports, fully 70 per cent insist they are not "global citizens," according to a major BBC GlobeScan Poll of 18 nations. Only one country polled was found to be more inwardly focused: Vladimir Putin's highly nationalistic Russia.  

Merkel has also taken political hits on her foreign policy, which many Germans feel has pushed a form of high-handed "moral imperialism" too far in relations with other Europeans. But it's her domestic front that puts her decade-long run as chancellor at greatest risk.

Stakes are high

Merkel is, however, a remarkable leader with a record of flexible "course changes" on policy. Unless she decides to quit before the 2017 election, she may yet shore up a winning coalition around her centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

The stakes are high for those who continue to support the European Union, as Merkel remains the strongest leader standing against the Euro-skeptic, perhaps still that "indispensable European."

But given the mood in Germany, she will have to show far more sensitivity to the growing nationalist craving for social stability and security.

That yearning is never easy to satisfy in unsettled times and may require a further tack to the right to emerge as a more hard-edged chancellor of a more self-conscious, inward-looking Germany.   

The alternative is to try persuading Germans they're on the right course. That, however, would require gambling that her powers of persuasion can survive rising cynicism about her own political judgment.


Brian Stewart

Canada and abroad

Brian Stewart is one of this country's most experienced journalists and foreign correspondents. He sits on the advisory board of Human Rights Watch Canada. He was also a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Munk School for Global Affairs at the University of Toronto. In almost four decades of reporting, he has covered many of the world's conflicts and reported from 10 war zones, from El Salvador to Beirut and Afghanistan.


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