Angela Merkel’s Plan B?

Will the Chancellor be forced to go against her instincts on Schengen?

In her policy statement to the Bundestag prior to the EU summit last week, Angela Merkel gave an insight into her progress in the search for a joint EU approach to the refugee crisis. The main question for Germany at the summit was: “Have we made so much progress with our European-Turkish approach within the framework of the EU-Turkey Agenda that it’s worth continuing along this path because it allows illegal migration to be perceptibly curbed, which is the crucial prerequisite for legal quotas? Or are we going to have to give up and instead, as some are vehemently demanding, close the Greek-Macedonian-Bulgarian border despite all the consequences for Greece and the European Union on the whole?”

The chancellor made it clear in her speech that she is still committed to making the deal with Turkey work. The already tricky ambition of engaging with Turkey became even more difficult with the Ankara bombings, which took place only hours after Merkel’s address and which led to the pre-summit meeting of the “coalition of the willing” being cancelled. For the time being, the Turkey deal remains on the table. Back home, Merkel also needs to demonstrate that she can rally more than just a handful of EU countries around her on this point and provide the much needed confidence that there will be joint ownership for the challenge of migration in the future. After all, the migration flows toward Europe won’t be stopping any time soon.

In mid-March Germany will hold regional elections in three German federal states. This will be a moment of truth for Angela Merkel and the federal government, because the elections will show the extent to which the arrival of refugees has changed the electoral landscape in the country. These elections mean that the window for firming up the EU-Turkey deal is closing fast. Angela Merkel knows she has to deliver.

While maintaining her convictions about the Turkey option, the Chancellor seems to be preparing for failure this time. It is a sign in itself that her statement explicitly mentioned the option of closing off Greece, which would effectively mean shifting the external borders of Schengen (while at the same time choosing not to mention Berlin’s negotiations with Ankara and a handful of other EU countries on a resettlement plan for Syrian refugees in Turkey).  

A week into the EU summit it looks as if the option of engaging the Western Balkans region is gaining ever more ground. In Berlin there is a growing feeling that Greece continues to be a problem. Merkel and her advisors will be reviewing the costs and benefits of both aforementioned approaches. Essentially, they will weigh the costs of the still inadequate implementation of the EU-Turkey Action Plan against the costs of de facto pushing Greece out of the Schengen area. Ankara has been a difficult partner and it is an open secret that many capitals believe the deal is not going to work, or that it will come at too high a cost. Never has an EU accession country had so much leverage over the Union, a fellow analyst pointed out. Ultimately, it is hard to imagine that Angela Merkel is willing to expose Germany and the European Union to such a vulnerable agreement – one that they will have to rely on for months and years to come. Her solution needs stronger foundations.

The option of closing off the Macedonian and Bulgarian borders could give Germany and other EU countries the results it needs in a more reliable and importantly, much quicker way. The EU still has a lot more leverage over the accession countries in south-eastern Europe than on Turkey. Western Balkan countries have a strong interest in cooperating with the EU because they still have accession ambitions and a proven level of commitment. With the ongoing humanitarian crisis along the Western Balkans route, there is a risk that the geopolitical challenges the entire region is facing could be compounded by more refugees, as Sonja Licht argued in November 2015. Being part of the answer to the refugee challenge would give the countries of south-eastern Europe a strong sense of belonging, which would pay off for the EU in these desperate times.

But, and this is a strong but, the costs associated with such a move would be very high indeed, and Angela Merkel knows it. Greece would be de facto pushed out of the Schengen area, leaving the country in a difficult position. The backlog of migrants that has already started to build up in Greece is significant, and numbers would quickly rise. There might be hope that migrants would stop taking the route through Greece once borders further north were effectively closed, but this is far from a safe bet. It is more likely that refugees, at least for some time, would continue to embark on this route, putting more internal pressure on a country that is already described by some as a “failing state”.

Despite the years of controversy with Athens over Greece’s euro currency membership, Berlin is well aware of the risks connected with losing Greece – and is even more attuned to the symbolic and de facto impact that such a decision could have on the future of the Schengen area, and the EU as a whole. It is difficult to envisage Germany, a country that cares deeply about European integration and whose economy benefits enormously from the free movement in the single market, transforming into Schengen’s grim reaper. Having said that, time is running out and Merkel might soon have no other choice.

Austria’s foreign and interior ministers convened a conference with countries along the Western Balkan route in Vienna this week. This move was interpreted, alongside Austria’s stance at the last EU summit, as yet another open criticism of Berlin’s refugee policy. But is Vienna really so critical of Berlin? Yes, and no. Vienna is indeed reacting to Berlin’s failure to deliver solutions, which is why the government, facing a difficult domestic environment, has decided to take the bull by the horns. However, it is hard to believe that Austria would run into a fully-fledged confrontation with its German neighbours on such a vital issue. As an EU member with ownership for developments in south-eastern Europe and in the EU as a whole, Vienna might ultimately turn out to be an instrumental partner in helping Angela Merkel out of the tight spot she is in. While Merkel was very explicit in rejecting the proposals made by the Visegrad group on closing off the Greek-Macedonian-Bulgarian border (something she had to do at that point for a number of other reasons), it would be easier for Berlin if conversations on any such scenario were facilitated by Vienna and the south-eastern European countries themselves rather than by the Visegrad states, who have caused Germany headaches in the midst of the refugee crisis and in recent months have shown little commitment to keeping the Union afloat. In such a scenario, Vienna could bring Berlin in for a Western Balkans focused solution. Angela Merkel would not completely lose face if such a course were to be pursued. After all, she would likely admit that she had to face a new reality and engage with practice that is already happening anyway.

Will Angela Merkel ultimately find her helping hand, if only by default? And how far has Berlin come in discussing scenarios for a Schengen without Greece, and for the costs if Greece is left to plunge even further into crisis?

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Head, ECFR Berlin
Senior Policy Fellow

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