‘This is not about whether Mrs Merkel stays as chancellor next week or not,’ said Xavier Bettel, the Prime Minister of Luxembourg, as he came out of an emergency summit on immigration last weekend. He was joking. That was exactly what the meeting had been about, and everybody there knew it. The summit was Operation Save Mutti. Their mission: to stop Merkel’s government collapsing by thrashing out a tough stance on immigration to assuage her critics. It’s quite a turnaround. Once, Merkel was queen of Europe, now she’s a beggar. Suddenly, European politics has changed beyond recognition.
Merkel may, by now, regret standing for re-election last year. There was a suspicion that she only did so to put things right in Euroland and ensure the history books would commend her open-door policy towards refugees. If so, that was a catastrophic misjudgment. The tide has now turned on migration — in Germany and across Europe. Those making the case for an open Europe are haunted and chastised. They are losing elections. Italy’s new coalition of left- and right-wing populists is a fiesta of political contradictions, but they share one simple goal: to stop the migration population from growing. They have little sympathy for Merkel and feel no obligation to offer help in her hour of need. As far as the Italians can work out, the verdict is in: Merkel was wrong and she’s lost.
Italy’s government wants a European refugee policy that is pretty similar to what Austria is advocating. Sebastian Kurz, Austria’s young and energetic Chancellor, has begun to talk about ‘an axis of the willing’ between his country, Italy and Germany. He has canvassed allies in Germany for his ideas on migration reform. Many in the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Germany’s centre-right party, are tired of Merkel and her centrist style of leadership and now see Kurz as their hero. Earlier this month, he staged a press conference with Horst Seehofer, Merkel’s interior minister, coalition partner and chairman of the Christian Social Union (CSU) party. Seehofer now wants Germany to turn away migrants who don’t have documents or who first applied for asylum in another EU country. Merkel has refused. If the decades-old CDU-CSU alliance ends over this issue, Merkel’s government would collapse.
Until recently, it was assumed that Merkel would last until the next German elections in three years’ time. Now, many are betting that she won’t even make it through the summer. Merkel asks for patience, but the CSU can’t afford to be sanguine given that it represents Bavaria, where frustration with her migration policy is at its greatest. Merkel says that Seehofer’s plans to turn back any migrant who has claimed asylum elsewhere in Europe would hurt EU solidarity. But Seehofer says he is certainly acting in solidarity, with Italy and Austria. There are now two kinds of European solidarity now: the Merkel type and the Kurz type.
To survive, Merkel must find a way to reconcile the two, but she is perhaps the only leader in Europe who thinks that is still possible. The last few years have underlined the growing importance many voters place on the nation state and its borders. Recent elections have shown how willing voters are to flock to parties who articulate this point, even in vulgar terms. Seehofer is panicked because his CSU is facing huge pressure from Alternative für Deutschland, the five-year-old anti-immigration party, ahead of the state election in Bavaria in October. AfD has plenty to say about the 1.4 million who have sought asylum in Germany over the past three years, and the estimated €20 billion-a-year cost of managing the issues accompanying the influx. The latest scandal in Germany involves the migration agency granting asylum — to possible criminals — in return for cash. The investigation is ongoing, and concerns only one agency office in Bremen, but it feeds the general idea of things being out of control.
Countries to the north, south and east of Germany have already moved away from Merkel’s vision of a European refugee policy. They differ on many things, but believe that while open borders worked during the late 1990s, when migration flows were far smaller and public concerns far lower, they do not work now. The Nordic countries are sympathetic to Berlin and to Merkel’s campaign to get all EU countries to accept refugees according to a quota. But they don’t believe it will work and fear that even if migrants are forced upon countries like Hungary and Poland, they will still end up joining the migrant diaspora in Germany and the Nordics.
Denmark and Sweden reinstated border controls in 2015 — and they plan to keep them. These border controls are more a response to public opinion than a practical device to stem the flow of migrants. Most centrist parties in my native Sweden have caught up with the view that the country has already accepted too many refugees. Denmark never cared much for Europe’s liberal consensus on migration, but what now counts as a middle-of-the-road view in the country was rebuked as borderline xenophobia only a few years ago.
Mette Frederiksen, the leader of the Danish Social Democrats who will likely become the country’s next premier, wants to make it impossible to claim asylum on Danish territory. If she gets her way, a persecuted Syrian or Libyan refugee asking for protection in Denmark should be sent to Danish refugee camps in Northern Africa and the Middle East. By Danish standards, she is still a migration liberal.
Viktor Orban in Hungary and Jaroslaw Kaczynski in Poland feel that their views on immigration have been vindicated — not just at home, but across Europe. And why shouldn’t they? Much as their migration policies are flawed, they are winning the battle of ideas over border controls and openness. They have many new allies in European capitals. Slovakia and the Czech Republic, the two other members of the Visegrad four, now have leaders who complain about Muslim immigration. And yes, Emmanuel Macron’s victory was astonishing — but a third of France still voted for Marine Le Pen.
Even a year ago, Orban and Kaczynski could still be dismissed as loonies and fruitcakes. They were irritants, for sure, but lacked charisma and had no reach outside their own small parishes. Merkel’s view of Europe was the consensus. When Macron took the Elysée, it was hoped that normal service would resume and Europe would be purged from grubby thoughts about migrants. Merkel’s case for a common European policy on refugees seemed likely to win.
But the elections in Italy and Austria changed all that. Having populists in former Soviet bloc states is one thing: having them running western European states is quite another. The balance of power keeps changing, shifting ever further away from Merkel. The incoming prime minister of Slovenia, Janez Jansa, is a migration hardliner and, like many others in the Balkan region, he sees Europe’s political future as being represented by Budapest rather than Berlin. The nationalist Sweden Democrats are riding high in the polls ahead of the September elections. And even they blanch at the asylum policies being proposed by the left in Denmark. The reality in Europe is moving far faster than the political debate in Brussels.
So what to do? Merkel now stands as the charity case, not the powerbroker. Macron offers her some respite, saying that he’ll help her by taking back the few asylum seekers in Germany who registered first in France. But far more refugees will have registered first in Italy, and the odds on its new government taking them back are slim. In Austria, Kurz is focusing on a plan to force refugees to apply for asylum before they enter the EU. When Austria assumes the EU’s rotating presidency next month, Kurz will make this a centrepiece of his agenda.
Kurz’s stance is unacceptable to Merkel. Belgium and the Netherlands are also protesting because they fear that what Austria and Italy want is a fortress Europe and that forcing migrants to apply from overseas centres will lead to inhumane migration detention camps, as seen in Australia. But can she fight against it?
If Merkel wants to stay in power in Germany, she will need to be wary of the politicians in her own CDU ranks who are closer to Seehofer. Yes, many have now come out in her support — but only because they dislike Seehofer’s gaudy style and the anti-European noise coming from CSU leaders in Bavaria. But if Merkel is increasingly seen as a busted flush, more voters in CDU heartlands may turn elsewhere. If her leadership recently took them to their worst election results since 1949, what might await them after more years of Merkel in power?
Whatever Merkel now chooses to do will cause her reputation to crumble. If she escalates the conflict with Seehofer — and fires him from government — it may be the end of the German centre-right as the party of government. If she goes along with Austrian and Italian demands to turn back migrants and create a fortress Europe, she will be admitting that her open-door policy on migration killed her own vision of a Europe that is welcoming to people fleeing from oppressive governments. She has run out of good options, as well as political authority. She might limp on in Germany for a few more years yet, but her long reign in Europe has ended.