Last year, the refugee crisis offered Merkel another opportunity to demonstrate just how fast she can change tack. Once again, media coverage influenced her decision-making, just as it would a few months later when smartphone videos of the New Year’s Eve riot at Cologne Central Station triggered another 180 degree turn in her policies. In July a PR event, part of a government campaign to encourage cabinet members to meet ordinary citizens and listen to their ideas, went wrong. One of the young people invited to take part in a ‘dialogue’ with Merkel on the environment, the 14-year-old daughter of Palestinian asylum seekers, unexpectedly complained in front of the TV cameras that her family, who had been living in Germany for four years, might be sent back to the Lebanon at any moment. She asked, in flawless German, why she wasn’t allowed to stay in Germany ‘to enjoy life like everybody else’. Merkel said something like, ‘we cannot take in everyone, much as we might want to.’ The girl began to cry. Not knowing what to do, Merkel started patting the child’s head with a helpless expression on her face. The result was widespread outrage on social media. A few months later, the authorities told the girl’s family that they could stay in Germany for at least another year.
The elite was persuaded that the German public would never put up with images like those of the Jungle in Calais. Day after day the media, whipped into a frenzy by Facebook and Twitter, accused France and Britain of callously denying migrants’ human rights. Then, in September, the publication of the photograph of the dead Syrian child, Alan Kurdi, forced political leaders worldwide into hectic if symbolic activity. Among Germans it was widely believed that the boy’s death was the fault of ‘Europe’ as a whole, including Germany. Meanwhile, refugees had been gathering in increasing numbers at Budapest’s central station, which produced another set of powerful images; most of those refugees seemed to be heading for Germany.
A master politician like Merkel will never let a good crisis go to waste. It wasn’t just media stories about suffering migrants that led her to invite the refugees in Budapest to come to Germany, no papers required and no questions asked. What Merkel called ‘showing a friendly face in an emergency’ was meant to shame those who, during the euro crisis, had enjoyed the cartoons of Merkel and her finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, in Nazi uniform. By opening the German border while the French and British borders remained closed, Merkel could hope to recapture the moral high ground occupied for so long by those accusing the German government of sado-monetarism, or worse.
Another factor was the tight labour market that German employers, still Merkel’s main constituency, were facing, especially after the introduction of a statutory minimum wage was forced on Merkel by her coalition partner, the SPD. Rumours spread in the German press that Syrian refugees in particular, many of them allegedly with degrees in engineering and medicine, had all manner of skills. German economic research institutes predicted a new Wirtschaftswunder, while employers promised to invest heavily in training the presumably tiny number of less skilled immigrants. Everybody assumed that most if not all the refugees and asylum seekers – a distinction soon lost in the general excitement – would stay in Germany for a long time if not for good. For Merkel, who in October 2010 claimed that ‘the multikulti approach [had] failed, absolutely failed,’ this was no longer a problem. In fact, it had become a solution: in the first half of 2015, several studies indicated that the expensive measures taken over a decade of Merkel rule to induce German families to have more children had had next to no effect. Early that summer, to avert what was perceived as a looming demographic crisis, Merkel got her closest aides to test the mood in the party and among the general public on immigration legislation, but was met with firm resistance.
Budapest was what the ancient Greeks called a kairos – a lucky moment when a number of birds were positioned in such a way that they could be killed with one stone. Politics, as always with Merkel, trumped policies. ‘Showing a friendly face’ would make it possible for the Greens at the next election in 2017 to do what their leadership has long wanted to do but never dared: enter into a coalition government with the Christian Democrats. Merkel acted exactly as she did on neoliberal reform in 2005 and nuclear energy in 2011: quickly, on her own, and without wasting time explaining herself. Just as she did when she ordered the Energiewende (‘energy transition’) while the law extending the lifespan of the nuclear power plants was still on the books (several energy supply companies are suing for damages), she counted on the opposition parties in the Bundestag – Linkspartei and the Greens – not to ask awkward questions, and they obliged. The members of her party couldn’t complain: they had been backed into a corner by the SPD’s approval of Merkel’s stance, and by their desire not to damage their leader. Once again, a decision ‘that will change our country’, as Merkel herself put it, was made without regard for democratic process or, for that matter, constitutional formalities. When Merkel declared the German borders open, there had been no cabinet decision to this effect and no official statement in the Bundestag. Since the opposition didn’t ask, as Merkel knew they wouldn’t, nobody knows to this day what sort of order, legal or not, by whom and when, was given to the police. The Interior Ministry is still refusing requests from leading figures (including the former president of the constitutional court, who was preparing a legal opinion on the matter for the Bavarian government) for access to the ministerial decree that should have been issued to the border authorities.
There were good reasons for asking questions. The refugees, more than a million of them, who arrived in Germany in 2015, all arrived from safe third countries. Under German and European law, they had to register in the country where they entered the European Union, and then wait to be assigned a legal residence in a member state. Merkel seems to have decided that she could safely ignore all this. When anyone complained that this was both a huge stress test on German society and a giant social engineering project, Merkel regally announced that if she had to apologise for ‘showing a friendly face’, ‘then this is not my country’ – an extraordinary statement for a democratically elected leader to make. In fact, as the Energiewende demonstrated, she has for some time been governing not like a parliamentary leader but like a president with emergency powers. For some time, inquiries into the wisdom of her immigration policy were answered by her entourage – which in this case included all the Bundestag parties – by claiming that the mere expression of dissent ‘played into the hands of the right’, a potent rhetorical device in Germany. Until Cologne, concern over the government’s handling of the refugee crisis was effectively suppressed.
Between September and January, Merkel’s minister of the interior was left
out of the loop as Merkel governed directly, using staged public appearances
– press conferences, talk shows and party conventions – to cultivate the
support of those in German society who saw the influx of refugees as an
opportunity to demonstrate to the world their country’s new friendliness.
Merkel did not shy away from Obama-style nationalist pathos, employing it in
her annual summer press conference on 31 August, when she told her
compatriots: ‘Germany is a strong country … We did so many things, we can do
that. We can do it, and where something gets in our way, it has to be
overcome.’ For six months she evaded all constitutional checks and balances,
enjoying the praise showered on her by, among others, Time magazine,
which made her Person of the Year 2015. She was talked about as a candidate
for the Nobel Peace Prize, and even Holocaust Remembrance Day on 27 January
turned into a Merkelfest when the guest speaker in the Bundestag, an
Austrian writer who survived the Holocaust, told her audience that ‘this
country, which eighty years ago was responsible for the worst crimes of the
century, has today won the applause of the world, thanks to its open
18 March 2016