World·Analysis

Brexit isn't the half of it: How Angela Merkel juggles Europe's many crises

It's been decades since a European leader has had to juggle as many crises under such extreme stress as German Chancellor Angela Merkel is doing right now. If only Brexit were her only torch in the air. But for the woman hailed last year as the "indispensable European," the torches just keep coming.

Whether it's tension with Russia, terrorism, the refugee crisis or Brexit, Europe looks to Merkel

German Chancellor Angela Merkel's popularity has taken a hit in Germany as she confronts Europe's many challenges. (REUTERS)

It's been decades since a European leader has had to juggle as many crises under such extreme stress as German Chancellor Angela Merkel is doing right now.

If only Brexit were her only torch in the air. But for the woman hailed last year as the "indispensable European" and "moral conscience of the continent," the torches just keep coming.

She's the go-to leader who is called upon to handle Britain's divorce filing to the west, Russia's provocations to the east, and all seething economic and political stresses in between.

Since the frenzy over Brexit broke out, she has been the vital compromise seeker. She was able to spare Britain the "get lost" reaction urged by more hardline EU members, but at the same time she crushed Britain's wistful hopes of an amicable cost-free divorce that would see it retain most of its EU privileges without any of the responsibilities.

Other leaders took similar stands, but coming from the thrice-elected chancellor of Europe's economic powerhouse, looking as steady and deliberate as always, it had decisive clout. 

So all-consuming was the drama over Brexit that a half dozen other issues were temporarily in the shadows. The refugee crisis, terrorism and other challenges continue to roil national politics on the continent and give increasing force to populist protest parties of the right and left.

Backlash 

Across the continent and especially inside Germany, the refugee crisis continues to cause shock waves months after Merkel stunned Europe with her arms-wide welcome of 1.1 million mostly Muslim newcomers. Merkel has appeared undeterred despite a backlash that has sent her popularity plummeting in the polls and exposed tensions in her government's political alliance.
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)

One of the most serious — and overlooked — challenges in the past week was more evidence of rising new security tensions with Russia to the east. 

In June, NATO generals watched one of their largest joint exercises since the end of the Cold War, called Anaconda. It featured 31,000 NATO soldiers in Poland and on the Baltic Sea, as well as a separate exercise on NATO's northeastern flank, which consists of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. 

Scant attention was paid because of the Brexit drama, but the commander of the U.S. Army in Europe had a dire assessment of military realities after watching the exercises: there's simply no way NATO can actually defend its northeastern flank for more than "36 hours."

"Russia could conquer the Baltic States quicker than we could get there to defend them," Lt.-Gen. Frederick Hodges told German radio.

Tensions have been building ever since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and supported the separatist rebellion in eastern Ukraine. NATO responded by increasing troop levels in Europe, including an extra U.S. brigade, and conducting more military exercises.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and NATO have been doing plenty of sabre-rattling. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/Associated Press)

Russian President Vladimir Putin has denounced those exercises while ordering massive Russian manoeuvres. NATO expects another major Russian exercise will be held during the alliance's summit in Warsaw in July. 

Angela Merkel usually isn't at the forefront of defence debates, but she recently made it clear she believes NATO should bolster its capacity in the east. She has also promised substantial increases in German military spending to answer Russian increases and modernization.

'Shrill war cries'

But just in the past few weeks, the issue created yet another firestorm for Merkel at home. No less than her own foreign minister blasted NATO exercises in eastern Europe as "warmongering."

"What we shouldn't do now is to inflame the situation with loud sabre-rattling and shrill war cries," Frank-Walter Steinmeier told the media.

It was an astonishing statement that shows just how deeply divided Merkel's government is about relations with Russia and the rising tensions. The issue has also divided the German people.

Three days later, the chancellor hammered back that Germany would continue to engage in dialogue with Moscow but "new threats" mean NATO's eastern territory must be strengthened. She also pledged Germany would play a larger role.

This isn't the first serious dustup that Merkel, of the conservative Christian Democrats (CDU), has had with her left-leaning Social Democrat partners, the SPD, nor will it be the last.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel reportedly asked German intelligence to investigate alleged Russian disinformation campaigns in Germany. (Sergei Karpukhin/AP)

Relations between Merkel and Putin have soured sharply. She appears to suspect, according to media reports, that Putin conspired with SPD members to split her coalition government as well as to encourage extreme right- and left-wing parties to keep anti-refugee tensions on the boil. 

Certainly the view of Merkel from Moscow seems hostile, which isn't surprising since she's one of the strongest Western backers of tough sanctions against Russia.

Insofar as Moscow might welcome a weaker EU, the departure of Merkel would also likely please the Kremlin.

Defy the odds

But the chancellor isn't backing off. She reportedly asked German intelligence to investigate alleged Russian disinformation campaigns in Germany. For good measure, she recently ensured sanctions against Russia were renewed for another six months despite the desire of some allies, including Italy and France, to let them die.   

Should Merkel, 61, defy the odds and earn an unprecedented fourth term as chancellor next year, she will be lonelier without Britain in the EU. She valued the U.K. as a strong liberal partner and cool head in a crisis.

There's now talk of a Berlin-Paris power axis in the EU, but her relations with France aren't as close.

As Europe's longest serving leader, she knows her place in history is assured. She also knows that having passed the ominous 10-years-in-power mark, she's reached the point where wise leaders often start planning their exit.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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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