5 April 2017

Will the migrant crisis sink Merkel?

By John Ryan

In 2015, Angela Merkel’s government accepted more than one million refugees into Germany. She consulted neither her European partners nor her own citizens.

Her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party consequently suffered a string of humiliating losses in state elections in 2016, while the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) made strong gains.

In September 2017, Germans go to the polls in federal elections – and the issue of migration, and of Merkel’s response to it, is likely to be the single most important issue. Dissatisfaction with the policies of the Chancellor, and in particular her open-border policy, has polarised German society and German politics.

Currently, the grand coalition parties – the centre-right CDU and its Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union (CSU), and the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) – hold 80 per cent of the seats in the Bundestag, with the Greens and the Left Party holding the rest.

But the anti-immigration, UKIP-style Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) have proven adept at motivating non-voters as well as poaching voters from the CDU in addition to the SPD and even the Left Party, and will surely strengthen their position in September – as will the free-market Free Democrats (FDP).

AfD’s success in regional elections has intensified anger with Merkel within the CSU in particular. German conservatives must now deal with a rising force to their right, just as the SPD has seen its electoral results depressed with the emergence of the Left party. AfD’s support in the polls is the lowest since the start of the refugee crisis.

Merkel has therefore been pushed by her party’s right wing to put repatriation right at the top of the political agenda. Germany is now speeding up its asylum process. This means tougher rules allowing police to detain people deemed to be a threat, and the establishment of centres close to airports to house rejected applicants.

Yet recent figures showed that a total of 556,499 failed asylum seekers have stayed on in the country, with four in five residing in the country for more than six years, thus granting them extra rights. An investigation by Die Welt found that although asylum is granted for a period of three years under the Geneva Convention, nearly all German migrants granted asylum are allowed to stay indefinitely. Despite an attempt to tighten up residency permits last year, leave to stay is granted much more quickly in Germany than in other EU states.

According to the German economic research institute Institut der Deutschen Wirtschaft, Merkel’s migrant policy will cost €50 billion in 2016 and 2017 alone, while the Mannheim-based ZEW has found that the costs will escalate to nearly €400 billion over the next 20 years – assuming, optimistically, that most of these refugees eventually find work.

But the migrant crisis is not the only problem that has Germans grumbling. Despite positive growth figures and a vast trade surplus, polls show that 70 per cent of Germans believe that inequality is excessive. Data show that Germany is a highly polarised society, with the bottom 40 per cent of households having the same or lower real income as 25 years ago.

Although full-time, permanent employment has increased, so has the number of precarious, part-time jobs. Germany has a two-speed economy, with a widening gap between successful, export-oriented sectors on the one hand, and domestic, services-based sectors on the other. Levels of social mobility and equality of opportunity are also poor.

There is also Germany’s crumbling infrastructure, which is now starting to have a serious impact on GDP. Most of the money going in is being used not to build new roads or bridges, but just to patch up the old stuff. And Germany’s economic model has also taken a damaging reputational hit, with the Deutsche Bank and Volkswagen scandals the most high-profile examples.

Merkel is not only under pressure domestically, but also within Europe. She has always kept her focus on German interests. This played out in the Greek debt crisis, when Merkel did the bare minimum – just enough to prevent a meltdown, but far too little to put an end to the Greek or the broader euro crisis.

Under such circumstances, it is hardly surprising that Martin Schulz, the former president of the European Parliament, has returned to Germany to run against Merkel – or that he is doing so well in the polls. One shows his SPD at 31 per cent, within 2 per cent of his rival. Other polls show the parties neck-and-neck at 32 per cent.

There will be many issues, over the coming months, which could change that equation – in either direction. Europe will be reshaped by the outcome of the French elections, the Brexit negotiations, diplomatic tensions with Russia. Then there are the verbal threats made by Donald Trump over security and trade.

But above all – as in the UK, US, Netherlands and France – it will be immigration which dominates the agenda in September: its economic and cultural costs, and the security worries it provokes.

Back in March, Merkel appealed for calm amid a row over planned campaign rallies by Turkish ministers in Germany, which triggered accusations by President Erdogan that Germany was engaged in “Nazi practices” and threats to “start an insurrection” in Germany.

Despite broad support from her European neighbours, critics accused Merkel of failing to stand up to Erdogan for fear of endangering the deal with Turkey which keeps more Syrian migrants from arriving at Germany’s borders – a classic case of damned if she does, damned if she doesn’t.

If she wants to win a fourth term in September, Chancellor Merkel has many problems to solve. But the migrant crisis will surely be the most difficult.

John Ryan is a Fellow at LSE Ideas (International Strategy and Diplomacy)