It’s very hard to write about Angela Merkel, Germany’s all-powerful chancellor and one of the most important politicians in the world today. The problem: Which Merkel are we talking about?
The austere East German who turned “Europe’s sick man” into an economic and political powerhouse? The manipulative “Godmother” who exterminated any potential rivals inside her Christian Democratic Party? The hardline austerity hawk who unleashed Finance Minister Wolfgang Schauble on Greece last year, risking Germany’s hard-earned post-World War II reputation? Or perhaps the compassionate leader who threw her arms open to refugees arriving from conflict zones, against the tide of xenophobic sentiment taking over Europe?
But there is something that all of these Merkels share in common; a streak of carelessness, political ruthlessness, short-termism and lack of grand vision.
According to a recent poll, 40 percent of German respondents want Merkel to resign over her handling of the refugee crisis. The public in Germany is fed up. While Merkel’s party still polls well, her own career is under scrutiny for the first time – and not necessarily for the right reasons.
Merkel has been accused time and again of seeking only power, and of being ruthless in the way she goes about obtaining it.
“There are no fundamental debates any more because everything in Merkel’s party is presented as being without alternative. It is like being in a school cafeteria that offers only one dish a day” said Josef Schlarmann, her party’s business expert, in 2012.
His words carry an echo of her hard line on austerity, now the dominant dogma in Europe that is increasingly turning the continent into a breeding ground of precarity, resentment, xenophobia and extremism. No one can challenge Germany on this line without facing grave consequences, as Greece found out the hard way. The supposedly centrist Merkel has ended up indulging both the best and the worst in her electorate.
It is obvious that the way in which Merkel has tried to be everything to everyone in Germany has forced her to pander to voters’ anxieties, regardless of validity or practicality. To Merkel, it doesn’t matter if the austerity program imposed on Greece is unworkable, as long as it polls well with her constituents.
In order to achieve this, Merkel and Schauble were happy to join forces with right-wing governments such as Hungary’s that promoted nationalism and xenophobia, and that are now also pushing for extreme measures against refugees.
It was a process in which Greece was “othered” and made to serve as the scapegoat for Merkel’s dithering and lack of strategic vision. Her own shortsightedness is evident in the backlash she is facing for promoting an open refugee policy, which she pushed ahead despite the fact that her own policies have poisoned political consensus within the European Union, and without having a plan in place.
She has allowed Greece to be labeled irresponsible for failing to handle a million people passing through its territory, even though they were encouraged by the promise of a humane Europe and a welcoming Germany. Having previously threatened Greece with expulsion from the eurozone, she now threatens them with expulsion from the Schengen customs area, all for the sin of being at Europe’s edge.
There is little doubt that if the once unthinkable happens and Schengen falls apart (which business leaders have warned might cost the German economy up to 10 billion euros per year), perhaps followed by the EU itself, history will judge Merkel harshly. Former Chancellor Helmut Kohl, has already allegedly said: “She is destroying my Europe,” according to the German magazine Der Spiegel. He should know, as he helped launch her political career. In the past he allegedly reserved harsher words on his own mistake “I brought my killer, I put the snake on my arm.”
Merkel’s hypocrisy on the refugee crisis is easy to overlook, but deserves scrutiny. In a 2003 op-ed for The Washington Post, then-opposition party leader Merkel danced around an outright endorsement of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, which Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder opposed. While U.S. President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair have been forever tarnished by their support for the war that set in motion the current refugee crisis, Merkel hasn’t taken any significant responsibility for her position.
Meanwhile, Germany has offered money and diplomatic leniency to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s increasingly despotic regime in exchange for his efforts to keep refugees in Turkey. Turkey doesn’t want millions of refugees any more than European countries do. He has taken the cynical but obvious step of closing Turkey’s borders with Syria, and has gone as far as to push refugees back into a war zone, a direct violation of international treaties.
Merkel’s ambition is no substitute for a coherent strategy. It’s not surprising that her plans are coming apart and her popularity is plunging below 50 percent for the first time. The real surprise is that it didn’t happen sooner.