MUNICH — It happened on Wednesday. Two politicians from Germany's ruling coalition uttered a phrase that can only be bad news for German Chancellor Angela Merkel: "government crisis."
One of the legislators spoke of the "chaotic days of the Union," where the "refugee crisis" risks leading to a "government crisis." The other one quipped: "Germany already is in the middle of a government crisis."
Today's problems, which come amidst the outcry over Merkel's refugee policy after the New Year's Eve assaults in Cologne by migrant Muslim men, are indeed much more serious than what Germany, and especially Merkel, had to face just a couple of years ago on the eve of national elections. Before that, Merkel had been pretty much immune to any crisis whatsoever.
Today the surging asylum-seeker numbers have created culture clashes and resentment across the country, and news of how it's affecting Germany is dominating headlines. There have always been political conflicts, but this time the woman who just a couple of months ago was being toasted on the world stage is at the center of it.
Merkel's refugee policy is being excoriated, both inside her own center-right CDU party, and outside it. The transportation minister was the first this week to raise his voice against the chancellor. It's not enough to "show a friendly face," he said, an allusion to Merkel comments from September. The government must prepare to close borders, he said, an idea that represents an affront to Merkel's policy.
The chancellor avoids whenever possible showing any reaction to such criticism. She knows that the wrong comment could be enough to further enhance the status of her opponents.
So, some have begun to ask, is this what a governmental crisis looks like? So far the antagonism hasn't won out. Fifty signees to a letter that demands a change of course received minial media attention, and the letter has been mocked by the magazine Bild.
But behind the scenes, the general agitation is being felt. "You wouldn't believe the pressure on all of us," says one of the legislators who signed the letter. Says another: "Younger colleagues don't want to be identified, fearing this may harm their career and political future."
Governmental crisis? It's a fact that the long-standing coalition between the CDU and the Social Democratic SPD has begun to stagnate: in recent weeks and months, Merkel has failed to show any tangible results, neither on negotiations on the European Union level, nor with Turkey. Meanwhile, domestic crisis management can't seem to keep up with events. The government seems to have accepted the fact that the legislation proposed over asylum is not going to muster sufficient support. "It's stuck and closed," they say. "There's nothing we can do today, which is stupid, but that's how it is."
Truth is, that there is actually agreement on many points, such as steps concerning quicker deportation of illegal refugees or the participation of refugees in the financing of their integration. But a standoff over the right of entry for family members of German residents and refugees deeply divides the coalition.
Moreover, the issue extends to other legislation, which begins to create further fractures in the governing coalition. Last week, for example, the chancellor's special refugee coordinator Peter Altmaier had to negotiate with the Minister of Construction Barbara Hendricks over the question of housing refugees. Yes, when the first cracks begin to show, signs of crisis can start to appear everywhere.