Germany's Refugee Crisis And The Remaking Of Angela Merkel
Typically reliant on solid argument and logical persuasion, Merkel is now turning to the humanity of Germans on the refugee crisis. It's a revolutionary approach for the world's most powerful woman.
BERLIN — Chancellor Angela Merkel's speech about hosting refugees came "from the heart," which is a revolutionary approach for the German leader. But seen in political terms, it was also the only card she could really play amid the refugee crisis rocking Europe.
This time around, Merkel stands alone. Her party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), is largely lined up against her now, especially at the grassroots level. Her cabinet of ministers is wobbling on its formerly secure pedestal, and Interior Minister Thomas de Mazière has made it abundantly clear that he's unconvinced by Merkel's "we can do it" attitude. The CDU's sister party, the Christian Social Union of Bavaria (CSU), is also applying pressure, and the latest opinion polls show the popularity of both Merkel and her party plummeting.
But the Chancellor was unwavering on live television last week when she appeared on Anne Will's talk show, despite the fact that she has said nothing of substance to convince the country that it's possible to successfully manage the influx of refugees.
It's true that the asylum seekers will be an asset to the national economy in the long run, but that won't be evident any time soon. It's also true that the refugees will enrich Germany's cultural heritage without forcing Germans to waive their own identity. But that too will only be fully understood in the years to come, especially by those in regions where there has been historically little contact with foreigners per se.
Even in Germany, there are Muslims who have become carnival princes or champion marksmen at rifle club festivals. It takes time for something like this to develop naturally, but it does and will happen.
It's also true that right now there are too many refugees entering the country, which invariably creates disenchantment among the citizenry. Germans are used to everything following a specific plan, but they're now forced to improvise wildly. It's unsettling and confusing to many, and it can lead to things being blown out of all proportion. Some may become agitated about the fact that some refugees are being housed in school gyms, which means that physical education classes will have to be suspended for a while.
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Germany-bound refugees at the Hungary-Austria border. Photo: Mstyslav Chernov
Fears tend to be irrational, often shaped by prejudices. They might wonder whether they can still greet people with the traditional "May God be with you" in southern Germany where a third of a given village's population is now Muslim. The answer, of course, is that yes, we can! But these fears will only be mitigated through positive experiences, and again, that will take time.
All of this could have all gone a bit more smoothly, no question. For a very long time the government vigorously ignored all the signs that pointed towards an abundance of refugees streaming towards Europe, especially Germany. Merkel simply waited too long to take action. The refugees were gathered in train stations in Budapest and Vienna in the thousands before she even acknowledged the situation. And then, despite EU regulations, she promised them that they would be allowed to remain within Germany.
That decision was and is right, as it represents an act of humanity toward people who have been forced to flee war. But the political risk here is incalculable. She has nothing left to offer other than her faith that the country will weather this difficulty. But the unwavering trust that Germany placed in her, even at the height of the Euro crisis, is now dwindling slowly. Merkel will have to demonstrate by 2017 that she is able to find a solution to the problem if she doesn't want to endanger her continued chancellorship. It won't be solved by then, but she will at least have to demonstrate progress.
It's not an impossible feat, but it requires more than just the chancellor's efforts. It requires the combined efforts of all those in charge, all those who shoulder responsibility. Merkel contributed a very personal and emotional part of herself to the debate when she "spoke from the heart." It's a entirely new posture for the chancellor, who until now has relied on sober analysis of the facts rather than heartfelt conviction.
Merkel now hopes that she will reach the hearts of every German by sharing her own.