Angela Merkel’s mixed role in Germany’s refugee crisis

Angela Merkel’s mixed role in Germany’s refugee crisis

Germany’s leadership role in the European refugee crisis has been widely recognised, but Chancellor Angela Merkel faces domestic pressure surrounding her policies.

Germany’s response to the European refugee crisis has attracted praise on various occasions, including from US President Barack Obama and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres. In an article published in early September, The Economist called Chancellor Angela Merkel’s leadership ‘a shining exception‘ in Europe.

Angela Merkel’s slow reaction

Not all Germans would agree. In a representative poll carried out by German public-service TV broadcaster ARD in early September, only 37% of respondents felt that Angela Merkel had thus far responded appropriately.

Whilst internationally Angela Merkel is often seen in her starring role as a calm and pragmatic crisis manager, initially observant but ultimately decisive, she is perceived as rather hesitant and slow to react in German domestic politics.

The slang word ‘merkeln’, a verb derived from her surname and currently the top contender in the German Youth Word 2015 competition, is used as a synonym for ‘doing nothing, not making a decision, not expressing an opinion.’

Her initially slow reaction to the refugee crisis over the summer is a case in point.

After right-wing extremists attacked refugee accommodation in Heidenau, a small town in East Germany near Dresden, in August, Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel was one of the first politicians to public condemn the attacks and visit the town.

Gabriel is also the chairman of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), which is the junior partner in the coalition with the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), led by Merkel. The SPD chairman is a potential candidate for the chancellorship in the next election in 2017.

In contrast, Angela Merkel’s reaction to the attacks was perceived as slow and emotionless, and, not just on this occasion, it looked like her competitor was at least two steps ahead of her.

Eventually, Angela Merkel responded more decisively: after the dead bodies of 71 refugees were found in a truck in Austria, she found unusually clear and emotional words at a press conference on August 31st. She spoke of the ‘endless number of tragedies’ and ‘inconceivable atrocities’, and took a clear, zero-tolerance stance against xenophobia. Angela Merkel shines as an international crisis manager.

Politically, Germany is likely to benefit from the refugee crisis: after its reputation suffered due to the hard stance the German government took during the negotiations with Greece, the refugee crisis provides a welcome opportunity for Germany to show its ‘friendly face’, and further establish itself as a soft power and moral authority.

Angela Merkel is also likely to benefit domestically: although her response to the refugee crisis has attracted some criticism in Germany, it has shifted attention away from other contentious topics, such as Greece, developments in Ukraine, and Germany’s role in the NSA scandal.

Merkel under pressure

Yet, Angela Merkel is under pressure. In particular, Horst Seehofer, Bavarian Minister-President and leader of the CDU’s sister party Christian Social Union (CSU), has opposed her welcoming refugee policy and called her recent decision to let refugees from Hungary travel to Germany a ‘mistake that will occupy us for a long time to come.’ Seehofer even recently invited Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, widely criticised for Hungary’s treatment of refugees, to Bavaria.

In addition, Minister-Presidents of Germany’s sixteen federal states have been demanding additional resources from the government to cope with the influx of refugees. In North Rhine Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state and the state that has accepted the highest number of refugees so far, several towns are reaching their limits.

While many politicians were reluctant to admit the scope of the problem before the local elections on September 13th, calls for more money and a more equal distribution of refugees have been increasing over the past week.

Angela Merkel’s next challenge will be to find a sustainable solution to the refugee crisis. The decision to introduce border controls at the German-Austrian border might not only be a reaction to domestic pressures, but also a signal to other European countries that Germany cannot solve the crisis on its own. It remains to be seen whether a European solution can be found.

Categories: Europe, Politics

About Author

Larissa Arabelle Brunner

Larissa Brunner currently works for a research consultancy focusing on not-for-profit organisations. She holds a BA in Economics and Management from the University of Oxford and a Double Master’s degree in European and International Relations from Sciences Po, Paris and Fudan University, Shanghai.