There was a time not too long ago – less than three years to be exact – when German Chancellor Angela Merkel was at the very top of her game. She dominated German and European politics for over a decade with her clear, effective, but cautious leadership, watching as the German economy solidified its place as Europe’s economic engine. When Merkel decided to open Germany’s doors in August 2015 to hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing war and persecution in Syria, she became much more than the steward of Berlin’s economic power – she transformed overnight into the moral beacon of the European continent.
There she was, taking the daring political risk of allowing an unrestricted number of Syrians to cross the German border in order to claim asylum, when others – like Hungary’s Viktor Orban – were concentrating their resources on a slapdash attempt to build walls and fences. As the Guardian newspaper would write in a September 2015 editorial, ‘The German chancellor has taken the lead on an issue that has, for too long, produced nothing but squabbling among member states, and fodder for the populists who would wall their countries off from the outside world.’
A lot has changed in Germany since then. Germans who were once running to the train to stations to greet refugees with placards saying ‘Welcome to Germany’ have become tired of the influx. Merkel’s political infallibility has taken a hit ever since August 2015 when she settled on the open-door policy. She has been badgered by her more conservative Christian Social Union coalition partners to the point where her Interior Minister, Horst Seehofer, almost ended her fourth term early with a resignation over the migration issue. And, while Merkel has appealed to the German people’s sense of humanity to those fleeing conflict, the politics of migration have become so hawkish so quickly that she has had to strike agreements with Turkey’s Tayyip ‘Sultan’ Erdogan to cut off the flow. The pressure of caring for, housing, and integrating over one million refugees and migrants over a two year span was too much for even the industrious Germans to deal with.
First, Merkel approached the Turks in 2016 to take some of that pressure off. A stop-gap arrangement was signed in 2016, and the Balkan tours have been shored up. Now, Merkel has approached the two-month old socialist government in Spain to sign a deal with similar overtones. According to a German Interior Ministry spokesman, Madrid has agreed to take back migrants who registered for asylum in Spain but who nevertheless attempted to cross into Germany. Migrants who are caught will be processed by authorities and deported back to Spain in 48 hours.
For Horst Seehofer and the anti-establishment Alternative for Deutschland (AfD), preventing more people from crossing the German border is the least the Chancellor can do. If the AfD held the reins of government (a prospective too horrifying for many to imagine), Germany’s borders may very well be shut to all migrants or refugees regardless of their circumstances. For Seehofer, hard measures like arresting migrants at the border and sending them on their way is the only way Berlin can send a deterrent to those in the Middle East and Africa who still see Germany as a utopia: Germany is closed for business, don’t waste your time or your life trying to come in.
For a Europeanist like Angela Merkel, however, there is something intrinsically wrong with striking deals with other countries whose spirit runs afoul of the Schengen system. Close German borders to desperate people, and there is nothing stopping other countries in Europe (like Austria) from doing the same thing. Sooner or later, Europe loses its status as a liberal caretaker of the world’s most vulnerable.
If she were being honest, Merkel might tell you that turning away tired men, women, and children back to where they originally landed is distinctly anti-European and an affirmation of how powerful law and order populist forces have become. But the politics of the moment wouldn’t permit anything different.
Merkel may still be Chancellor, but she has been forced to swallow a bitter pill to survive as a political leader. She will now be remembered both as Europe’s humanitarian savior to the less fortunate and a pragmatic politician who modified her policies when the domestic politics on migration trended towards the right. One wonders if the Merkel of 2015 would have recognized the Merkel of today.