In the run up to the European Council on 17-18 March, the domestic debate in Germany will have a clear influence on Merkel’s standing at EU level. The elections in three of Germany’s federal states this past Sunday have represented a vital indicator of public opinion on Angela Merkel’s refugee policy. Merkel’s political capital at the European level was put to the test by the domestic vote. Did the Chancellor come out of the elections stronger or weaker? And what do the results mean for her position at the summit later this week?
The outcome of the elections is complex, especially regarding any wider implications they may have for Germany’s political parties. In the elections, the xenophobic and Eurosceptic Alternative für Deutschland made it into all three parliaments with double digit results. In the case of Saxony Anhalt the party came in second place, after Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union of Germany (CDU), with more than 20 percent of the vote. Angela Merkel’s CDU lost votes in all three federal states. Having said that, it would be too simplistic to call the results a blow to Angela Merkel and her refugee policy. Analysts and party strategists have pointed out that Sunday’s elections have indeed given her renewed reason and confidence to pursue her existing course of action on the refugee crisis. Julia Klöckner, one of the future hopefuls of Merkel’s CDU, challenged the Chancellor’s policy course during her election campaign; however, she failed to beat the Social Democratic prime minister in Rhineland-Palatinate. In Baden-Württemberg, the Green party frontrunner Winfried Kretschmann defended his position as “minister president” – first minister of the federal state – with a historic win. The Greens traditionally take a liberal stance on migration and integration, which indicates that despite the gains made from the AfD, there are still many who support Berlin’s overall policy on refugees.
In the face of these results Angela Merkel has made it clear that she remains firmly committed to holding her course on a policy that cares for. Having said that, Merkel’s approach to the continued arrival of refugees has already been more on the defensive side than is often portrayed in international media over the past few months. Facing domestic pressure, Merkel has begun to realise that arrival numbers need to be brought down. This has been visible in negotiations with European partners, Turkey and neighbouring countries in North Africa, and this is the course Angela Merkel will continue to pursue. Her interpretation of the deal with Turkey that she presented after the summit 7 March remains the game in town for Berlin ahead of the summit.
“We continue to work to ensure that Europe can learn to effectively protect its external borders. We want to implement the agreements with Turkey, because they are the best remedy for human traffickers”, Merkel’s spokesperson said in a press conference on Monday 14, the day after the elections. Federal Justice Minister Heiko Maas, a Social Democrat in Merkel’s coalition government, backed Merkel by stressing that negotiations with Turkey would facilitate a sustainable end to the current refugee crisis. Both the CDU and Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) clearly demonstrated Schulterschluss (closing of ranks) on their refugee policy to push back against the AfD and to the Christian Social Union in Bavaria (CSU), whose leader called for a change of course following the elections.
But the Überrealpolitik in Berlin’s approach to Turkey does not come unchallenged. Cem Özdemir, the leader of Germany’s Green Party, criticised Merkel’s Turkey plan (which the Chancellor insists the Turks brought to the table) in an interview with Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung for not finding the right balance between accepting Turkey’s help and maintaining strong stance on Turkey’s domestic developments. “So far, Merkel’s Turkey policy has been a complete disaster”, he said. Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, vice president of the European Parliament and leader of the Free Democratic Party (FDP), said that the EU should not led Turkey “drag it through the arena on a nose ring” (“Wir müssen uns nicht am Nasenring durch die Manege führen lassen”). NGOs such as Amnesty International have also voiced strong criticism regarding Germany’s cooperation with Turkey. The question of whether the deal negotiated with Ankara violates Germany’s commitment to international law and the Geneva Convention is also resonating among the foreign policy community in the Bundestag.
Having said that, Angela Merkel looks set to continue her course in support of the deal in Brussels later this week. In her view, the best way to fight the rise of the AfD is to pursue a realistic approach to managing the challenge that the refugee crisis poses to Germany and Europe as a whole. Where this leaves the Union’s values is a question Merkel will certainly have to answer on her return to Berlin.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.