Douglas Murray, courtesy of The Weekend Australian and The Spectator, where the title is “Merkel is losing the plot”
It may be hard to remember, but only a year ago Angela Merkel bestrode the continent of Europe.Those who agreed with the way she kept the eurozone together and those who disagreed were at least united in the recognition that here was a true political leader, one perhaps destined to stand equal to Konrad Adenauer, Willy Brandt and Helmut Kohl as one of the great postwar German chancellors. Today that reputation is beginning to turn. From being credited with holding Europe together Merkel now is being blamed for rending it apart.
Last year, the saviour of the eurozone crisis became the architect of the mass migration crisis, opening the doors of Europe and Germany to anybody who wanted to come. And come they did — from Africa, the Middle East and Asia. They arrived by boat and on foot, and when they got to Europe they travelled through country after country to one place in particular that seemed likely to welcome them: Germany.
Internal government reports now suggest that as many as 1.5 million asylum-seekers arrived in Germany last year. This constitutes more than 1 per cent of the total German population. A similar number are expected this year and in the years ahead (and this is before anyone takes into account the right of those who have arrived to bring their families to join them). Across Germany, social services are straining, private buildings threatened with requisition unless they are handed over for the housing of refugees, and public sympathy is diminishing. “Mutti” Merkel, who made these policies so much her own, still refuses to acknowledge any downsides in all this.
So even before last week’s regional elections the thought had begun to cross the minds of many even in the Chancellor’s party (the Christian Democratic Union) that their electoral superstar may have transformed into a liability. Now those results are in, a thought has finally entered German politics: even Merkel may be mortal.
The nature of last week’s CDU defeats shows an impressive variety of ways in which German voters chose to punish Merkel. They deprived her party of victory in places where victory had seemed secure by swinging to the Green party and to the centre-left Social Democrats. Even in places where the CDU won, its vote collapsed.
But it was the rush to one party in particular that demands most attention, for among the main parties in Germany there is broad agreement on Merkel’s open-door immigration policy. Nowhere in Europe is there a more consensus-driven politics than in Germany.
The Green party, for instance, which defeated the CDU in Baden-Wuerttemberg, remains in complete agreement with Merkel’s migration policy. But German politics is becoming less consensual by the day. The Alternative fur Deutschland party was founded only three years ago by a group of mainstream economists and others who were critical of the German government’s eurozone policies. The party gained attention by breaking the political silence and openly criticising the workability of a currency union intended to bring Europe closer together that actually did so much to tear it apart.
But having broken one part of the consensus, AfD swiftly became a home for other, more subdued debates. Within two years of its founding there was a change in AfD leadership and this in turn reflected a shift in the popular concerns. The rise of Islamic State in the Middle East and North Africa, as well as the repeated terrorist attacks and attempted attacks in neighbouring countries, not least France, has exacerbated public concern in Germany (as across Europe) over Islam, mass migration and the changing face of European societies.
In almost every European country there is at least one party now that reflects this cultural and societal concern. Geert Wilders’s Party for Freedom (PVV) in The Netherland, the UK Independence Party in Britain, the Sweden Democrats in Sweden and the Front National in France are all to a greater or lesser extent parties that speak to this growing worry.
While mainstream politicians from the old parties remain in denial, public opinion polls show large proportions (generally majorities) of Europeans who believe their societies are changing too fast and for the worse.
It is why the Sweden Democrats have gone from being in low single digits in opinion polls a few years ago to the very top of recent polls.
Wilders’s PVV is now running at an all-time high in the Dutch opinion polls.
And it is why the other two major parties in France are spending so much effort co-ordinating to contain the electoral triumphs of the FN’s Marine Le Pen.
In some countries these outbreaks of popular anger are perfectly savoury in nature; in others they may be cause for long-term concern. But nowhere in Europe is the response to mass migration and Islamisation more tortured than in Germany.
For obvious historical reasons the issues that AfD is speaking to are harder to swallow in the most important country in Europe than they are anywhere else on the continent. When Germans hear the word deportation the connotations are not happy. When they hear of people fleeing from a human nightmare, they think of just one precedent. And when people are perceived to be criticised or feared for their religion or race, a single historical analogy springs to mind.
That said, the statute of limitations for 20th-century guilt will end some day and many Germans already have begun to shrug off the blackmail of history and the use of inexact and often outrageous historical parallels as a means of preventing sustainable policies in the present. Such people see that recent arrivals to their country are not remotely analogous to Jews fleeing Nazi Germany. Few people who fled Hitler were especially choosy about where they ended up — as many recent migrants are — let alone moved through country after country until they found one with the best welfare provisions.
It is also the case — as many German people have realised, but their leaders have been sluggish to acknowledge — that most of the people who came in last year’s wave are economic migrants, not people fleeing genuine political persecution. In January, the European Commission’s First Vice-President Frans Timmermans admitted in an extraordinary statement that at least 60 per cent of the arrivals into Europe last year should not be in the continent and had no more right to be there than anybody else in the world.
Ordinarily, such an admission would lead to a review of immigration, deportation and asylum policy. In some countries — including Sweden, which took in a comparable proportion of migrants last year — an effort at political turnaround has begun. But in Germany no such review has occurred. Indeed, although one should use the phrase “bunker mentality” sparingly when speaking of a German leader, it is hard to know what else to call the utter refusal before or after Merkel’s drubbing at the polls to acknowledge that what happened last year was a mistake that cannot be repeated.
Alone among the political parties in Germany, the AfD has criticised those policies. It ran this election on slogans such as “Secure the borders” and “Stop the asylum chaos”. Throughout the campaign the party’s opponents threw everything they had at it. AfD posters were vandalised and sprayed with graffiti saying things such as “Don’t be racist”. More professional attempts by its political opponents to warn voters off the AfD by portraying it as inexcusably “far right” probably helped scare some people away from the party. But it is equally possible that it sends people towards the AfD, and the CDU and others ought to consider the effects produced by such frivolous demonisation.
Because last week brought an astonishing set of results for a three-year old party with an even younger party leadership. The AfD got 12.5 per cent of the total vote (coming third) in Rhineland-Palatinate, 15 per cent (again coming third) in Baden-Wuerttemberg and almost 25 per cent (coming second) in Saxony-Anhalt. A cynically power-hungry political party such as the British Conservatives might reflect after such a result, see a rapidly growing portion of the electorate unhappy with its policies and find some creative way to bring that electorate back to the warmth of the centrist political hearth.
But Merkel’s party has conspicuously refused to do that. Immediately after the election results a German government spokesman announced that the migration policy of the German government would not change. Faced with addressing the concerns of AfD voters or ignoring them, the CDU plumped for ignorance. Yet all the time it is setting itself and Germany up for a far more divisive and troubling future.
In the same week that the German electorate gave its views to Merkel, the Chancellor herself was negotiating a deal with Turkey, which is probably the only thing more likely than further mass-casualty terror attacks to increase European rage against the political consensus.
In a move to diminish the numbers of migrants from Syria coming into Europe through Turkey, Merkel negotiated an arrangement with Ankara that has two advantages for the latter. The first is that the cash-strapped EU will pay €3 billion ($4.4bn) to the Turkish government. The second is that Merkel and her EU colleagues have begun negotiating with Turkey to ease visa travel restrictions into the EU for the country’s 75 million citizens.
All this comes against a background where the official policy of David Cameron’s Conservative government in London — among others — is to push for full EU membership for Turkey in the coming years.
It is hard to imagine a better way to put a match to the powder keg of Europe.
Of course, there are always those who claim that the increasingly repressive and Islamist direction of Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey is the fault of the EU for dangling and then withdrawing the promise of EU membership. But this is a deeply self-centred analysis. In fact, Erdogan’s direction of travel has been obvious for years to those who have studied it or know how Islamist politics works.
Turkey — which has played such a cynical double role in fomenting the civil war in Syria — is now losing the hand it has chosen to play. (See long-time Turkey analyst Daniel Pipes’s story, left.)
For Merkel to push this deal with Turkey even as German voters begin to find a new way to express their political rage is what is politely known as doubling down. It is less politely known as madness. For decades in Europe — and nowhere more so than Germany — the expression of legitimate concerns about mass migration and cultural change has been dismissed with offensive labels such as “far right” and “fascist”. Today one has to believe that up to a quarter of German voters, and more in other countries, are actually fascist or accept that their concerns have some legitimate and mainstream merit.
Merkel has chosen the former route, which ironically is just about the only conceivable way in which one could create a real far-right problem in Europe. It is not far-right to oppose Turkish EU membership. It is not “fascist” to oppose unsustainable levels of migration. But Merkel and her colleagues seem intent on pretending that it is. All of which suggests that Merkel may be remembered not as a unifying chancellor in the mould of Kohl or Adenauer but as the latest iteration of the Weimar tendency.
She should enjoy it while it lasts.
Douglas Murray is an author and associate editor of British magazine The Spectator.