View from Berlin: Merkel under pressure

Angela Merkel finds herself under heavy pressure domestically for her stance on migration

In Germany, the daily arrival of migrants in the country has been a subject of intense domestic discussion, and increasing controversy. The focus over the past week has been on the quarrel within Angela Merkel’s party, and her coalition government, on how to deal with what is increasingly perceived as a lack of control (“Kontrollverlust”) over access and movement into and within Germany. The attacks in Paris at the weekend have added a new angle to this debate: there is now the temptation in Germany to link the question of border control, and migration as such, with that of terrorist activity.

The results of the Valletta summit were not dealt with prominently in the media, and therefore did not resonate much in the wider German debate. This is surprising, since the link between migration into Germany and the root causes of people leaving their countries towards Europe is obvious. And no doubt, Angela Merkel also has to demonstrate that she is making headway with her EU partners in finding the joint European solution she needs to pacify the situation at home.

The German Chancellor is under intense pressure. Lately, her minister of interior, Thomas de Mazière, made two unilateral moves that challenged the Chancellor’s course on migration policy: He put on the tablethe right of Syrian families to join family members with a change of their status, and reversed the decision to suspend the Dublin procedure for Syrians arriving in Germany that had been in place since August 2015. Both Angela Merkel and the head of her chancellery, Peter Altmaier, whom the chancellor put in charge of coordinating the government’s migration policy a month ago, had to admit they were not informed of this decision – and had to watch de Mazière keeping the upper hand, with support from within the party rallying behind him. Angela Merkel is openly challenged nowadays, most recently also by the minister of finance, Wolfgang Schäuble. In a speech that was widely commented on in the media, he compared the current situation of migration into Germany to an avalanche (“Lawine”) caused by a clumsy skier, and left no doubt about whom he was talking.

The question that is being increasingly asked is: Is this the beginning of the end of Angela Merkel? This week saw two major international foreign policy events in Berlin, and the sense that one got from the talk in town was that the Chancellor indeed finds herself in the most challenging situation of her career, and that she might not survive it. A second impression that one gets from conversations in Berlin these days is an ever stronger sense of realism in the political class. The euro, Russia, and most recently the migration crisis are three developments within only a few years that have made policymakers realize that both the European security order as well as the political project of European integration have become very vulnerable. The Paris attacks have certainly added to this perception.

Germany has a lot to lose if the European project loses its attraction, and with the domestic dimension kicking in with force in the current migration crisis, the government has to act, and Angela Merkel has to show tangible results. At the Valletta summit, this growing urge for realism did indeed play out, with Berlin reportedly being more flexible on austerity measures to bring in other EU countries on its relocation plan.

Demonstrating that she is still in the driving seat has been a major concern of Angela Merkel lately. Germany has been advocating closer cooperation between the EU and countries of origin and transit, and had pushed at the extraordinary EU summit in April 2015 for the EU-Africa summit to be convened. But Merkel is also well aware that expectations management is key. In her short press statement following the Valletta summit, Merkel therefore underlined that this was only the beginning of a longer process, whose results would only show much later. In her usual style, she emphasized the decision to systematically look at the problem: “Many of course will ask: Did we solve the problem with this summit? – The answer is no, but we began to solve it in a systematic manner. This is why this summit was important and absolutely necessary, but a great deal of work lies ahead of us.”, the chancellor is quoted on her official website.

Facing the growing domestic pressure, what is more important for Merkel at this point is that she can show immediate results. Apart from trying to win support for the relocation plan among other EU countries, the main thinking here continues to revolve around the crucial role of Turkey. For the Chancellery, the most important result of the meeting of EU leaders in Vallettatherefore was the prospect of a high level summit with Turkey to be convened in late November or early December and the adoption of the action plan.

Three things stand out in a broader perspective from the current political debate in Berlin: The migration crisis is more and more considered as a game changer with the potential to re-shape Germany’s European and foreign policy. Berlin will be inclined to take a bold stance because the domestic stakes have risen significantly. Secondly, Berlin is well aware that with its approach to migration it is fighting an increasingly lonely battle within the European Union. And, thirdly, for now the major figures in the coalition government have appealed to keep the migration debate separate from the one on terrorism in the aftermath of the Paris attacks. The coming days and weeks will show whether this will hold. The Bavarian sister party to the CDU, the Christian Social Union (CSU), also a member of the government, has already come out to ask for changes to Berlin’s refugee policy in light of the attacks. If linking migration to terrorism is gaining ground in the public debate in the days to come, this will further complicate things for Angela Merkel. For now she remains committed to Germany being able to overcome the challenge of migration, and to make integration work. But no doubt, she will be constantly reviewing the mood in the country.


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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