Nothing Can Take Down Angela Merkel — Except 800,000 Refugees

In the face of overwhelmed social services and a violent, resurgent right wing, the German chancellor is sticking with her open-arms policy on asylum-seekers. Can her political career survive?

A refugee holds a picture of German Chancellor Angela Merkel after the arrival of refugees at the main train station in Munich, southern Germany, September 05, 2015. Hundreds of refugees arrived in Germany on September 5, 2015 coming from Hungary and Austria. AFP PHOTO / CHRISTOF STACHE        (Photo credit should read CHRISTOF STACHE/AFP/Getty Images)
A refugee holds a picture of German Chancellor Angela Merkel after the arrival of refugees at the main train station in Munich, southern Germany, September 05, 2015. Hundreds of refugees arrived in Germany on September 5, 2015 coming from Hungary and Austria. AFP PHOTO / CHRISTOF STACHE (Photo credit should read CHRISTOF STACHE/AFP/Getty Images)

BERLIN — Never in her 10-year tenure as chancellor has Angela Merkel found herself so isolated, and under such unremitting attack, as she is today.

At home, high-profile figures in her own party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), who have taken her to task in public, are now planning an outright revolt; German voters who until recently adored the popular chancellor are, according to opinion polls, steadily abandoning her; and a radicalized far-right, of the sort now on the rise across Europe, is resurgent in opinion polls and on the German street. On the European level, just months ago, Germany appeared to rule the roost, handing down bailout terms to Greece with the support of practically the rest of the continent. Now Merkel can’t seem to scare up more than a handful of allies to back her plans to distribute refugees across the EU. The refugee crisis — an estimated 800,000 asylum applicants are expected to arrive in Germany this year alone — has become a watershed moment; Merkel’s political future depends on Germany meeting the challenge.

To her credit, Merkel has steadfastly insisted that Germany can and will respect the right to asylum, refusing to cap the number of migrants to whom Germany will consider granting political refuge. But whatever one may think about the wisdom of Merkel’s generous, humane decision to open up Germany to refugees — and there are still many Germans who proudly back her, as well as experts who underscore Germany’s dire need for new blood in light of its sagging demography — there is growing angst that the chancellor is losing control over the crisis and that the country is growing ever more polarized on what to do about the oncoming tide. And indeed, despite the ever colder weather, the migrants keep coming, in the thousands, sometimes as many as 10,000 a day, to German cities, towns, and out-of-the-way villages.

Germany’s social services are overrun; refugee centers are set on fire or stoned by racist extremists almost daily; and ever more is asked of overwhelmed municipalities, which are expected to register the asylum applications, provide accommodation and meals, and ensure the new arrivals’ security. The work of tens of thousands of volunteers and donations from ordinary burghers have compensated for an utterly unprepared official apparatus. Then, last Saturday, Germans were shocked as events took another dramatic, disheartening turn: On the evening news, they watched a rightist radical stab a leading candidate in Cologne’s mayoral election — a pro-asylum, middle-of-the-road independent — in the neck with a hunting knife. (The 58-year-old Henriette Reker, who is expected to make a full recovery, was hospitalized and then won the election a day later from her bed in the intensive care unit.)

In an effort to bring the flow of people under some degree of control and lighten the burden on localities, Merkel’s administration pushed new measures through the Bundestag, Germany’s parliament, last week. Asylum applicants, for example, can, as of Nov. 1, stay in “initial entry reception centers” — the gymnasiums, industrial warehouses, and other empty buildings that local officials have requisitioned for accommodating refugees — for up to six months rather than the current three. Instead of receiving 143 euros ($163) a month in cash, which the government deemed a “false attraction” for refugees, those waiting for their asylum hearing will receive mostly non-cash benefits. Moreover, Germany has expanded its list of what it calls “safe countries of origin” — that is, countries from which asylum applications can be speedily rejected because their citizens aren’t deemed at risk of persecution — to include Albania, Kosovo, and Montenegro.

Yet no one in the know believes these measures will really stem the influx. The entry reception centers are already overflowing. Pocket money itself isn’t what’s incentivizing families to flee their war-ravaged homes. And while the existence of new safe states should speed up asylum-processing procedures, it won’t actually mean fewer refugees knocking at Germany’s door. Merkel is pushing for so-called “transit zones” on the borders, which would hold migrants before their asylum claims were legally assessed and send packing those determined not eligible for asylum — but European authorities have questioned the legality of such a plan over the long term.

So the asylum-seekers keep coming, and Germans grow ever more nervous: Opinion polls show that 51 percent of Germans today believe their country can’t manage its refugee flows, in comparison to 40 percent just three weeks ago. Merkel’s popularity is at a new low — with a full third of Germans saying they’d like to see her resign. Even more astonishing: Within her own party, 14 percent say they feel the same way. In a party as traditionally respectful of hierarchy as the Christian Democrats, the rancor against Merkel is wholly unprecedented. High-profile MPs and CDU party leaders from the federal states are telling Merkel in no uncertain terms that they reject her open-arms policy. Germany, they say, is bursting at the seams and must close its border now. Their arguments run the gamut: Out-of-control immigration could open Germany’s borders to terrorists; newcomers could undermine German values; crime will increase.

At a regional conference of the CDU last week in Saxony, speakers excoriated the chancellor, calling for Merkel’s “dethronement.” They spoke of the “locks being wide open,” of Germany making a fool of itself in Europe, and warned that the foreigners would create dangerous, autonomous “parallel societies” in Germany. One speaker expressed angst for his children and grandchildren and begged: “Frau Chancellor, please close the borders!” An Oct. 14 open letter from 126 local CDU politicos across the country said that the current “open borders policy” was anchored neither in German nor European law and that most of the CDU’s members don’t support the government’s current policies.

The outspoken frontman of these naysayers is Horst Seehofer, the leader of Bavaria’s powerful Christian Democrats. (Seehofer’s party, the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU), is technically a separate party from the CDU but a close partner that runs with Merkel’s party in national elections.) From day one of the crisis, Seehofer has vocally opposed Merkel, even going so far as to invite Hungary’s controversial prime minister, Viktor Orbán, to a CSU congress in Bavaria this September and declaring, “If the government doesn’t set limits on immigration, then the people will have to set limits on the government.” When asked how much longer the CSU would stick with Merkel’s current coalition government, he said this was an open question. Never in nearly five decades of coalitions with the CDU has the CSU abandoned its partner — but the current crisis is terra incognita for Christian Democrats and the country.

Seehofer speaks for many critics in Merkel’s party, most of whom are praying that she will shift course before a full-scale rebellion breaks out. German media report that more than half of the 310 MPs in Merkel’s own party plan to submit a proposal to be put before the Bundestag to build a fence along the German borders like the one in southern Hungary. So adamantly has Merkel defended her policies that such a revolt — unheard of in the top-down CDU — would shake her chancellorship to its foundations.

The burgeoning crisis has spawned a sensational resurgence of the German far-right. Before the refugee crisis peaked this summer — before Merkel uttered her now-famous phrase with regard to the thousands of new arrivals: “We’ll manage it” — many figured this fringe element had destroyed itself through infighting. Pegida, the street movement whose name stands for Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West, burst onto the scene late last year in the eastern city of Dresden, staging xenophobic, anti-Islam protests that made front-page news across Europe. But Pegida had seemed to implode and dissipate in the face of revelations that its leaders had ties to neo-Nazis. Now, the right-wing party Alternative for Germany is gaining in the polls, and Pegida has staged a dramatic comeback.

This week, as many as 20,000 Pegida supporters marched in Dresden. At the rally, one speaker, the German-Turkish novelist Akif Pirincci, called the refugees “invaders” and referred to German politicians as Gauleiter, or Nazis. Germany, he said, was becoming a “Muslim garbage dump” and went on to say: “Of course, there are other alternatives — but the concentration camps are unfortunately out of action at the moment.” Pirincci was allowed to speak for another 20 minutes — to applause and cheers — before he was finally stopped.

The concentration camp remark has sparked outrage in Germany, and even Pegida’s co-founder has apologized. The Ministry of Justice is investigating the incident, which it says could violate free speech laws. But the ugliness has gone beyond just speech: This year alone, there has been more than 500 attacks that police believe were motivated by xenophobia, including the fire-bombing of both empty and inhabited refugee centers, attacks on events for new refugees, and the stoning of churches that shelter migrants.

The events of the last week — the Pegida rally and the stabbing, among others — have unnerved many Germans, some of whom are joining the chorus of skeptics opposing Merkel’s policies. The chancellor’s fate, then, is bound up with the refugees and Germany’s ability to process, accommodate, and then integrate them smoothly.

There is no heir apparent in the CDU to replace Merkel — and at the moment there is no movement to find one. The German Christian Democrats were until a few months ago soundly behind their undisputed leader Angela Merkel, Germany’s most popular politician and Europe’s most powerful figure. They don’t want to overthrow her: They want her to come to her senses, as they see it, and do what conservative-minded Christian Democrats are supposed to do. But in standing up for the right of the persecuted to political asylum in Europe, Merkel believes she is doing exactly that — and there’s the rub.


Paul Hockenos is a Berlin-based journalist. His recent book is Berlin Calling: A Story of Anarchy, Music, the Wall and the Birth of the New Berlin (The New Press).

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