Europe’s “powerfrau”, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, has wielded her country’s power to tackle a devastating financial crisis, a refugee crisis and a crisis in the EU itself.
But her popularity has suffered as the refugee crisis deepens and Germany’s auto industry struggles with an emissions scandal. The far right is also on the rise.
Merkel’s troubles at home could undermine her political clout just as the global climate summit in Paris approaches and the UK considers whether to exit from the EU.
If the woman Germans call Mutti is in trouble, is Europe too? There’s even a rebellion within her own party at home. And if not Merkel as Europe’s leader, who then?
In this week’s edition of The Network, Chris Burns will debate those issues with Jo Leinen, a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee at the European Parliament, and a member of the Social Democratic party which is a member of Germany’s grand coalition.
Pieter Cleppe from Open Europe; a non-partisan and independent policy think-tank and Stephen Brown, deputy managing editor at Politico Europe, an online and weekly publication.
Chris Burns: Are Merkel’s days numbered? How much longer can she remain in power the way things are going right now?
Jo Leinen : “There’s chaos in the Christian Democratic party. There are two parties in one. One wants to close the borders, the other is looking at how to integrate tens of thousands of refugees into our society; so there’s huge difficultly for Merkel to govern this situation.”
CB: But will she survive?
Jo Leinen: “That’s an open question. I think that the hospitality we’ve shown is good but it has its limits if we have to take in another million people and over winter to integrate them
in our cities and villages. It poses a real problem for her party to accept and to adapt.”
CB: “So a big question mark and I must mention that we did invite the Christian Democrat Union, they were not able to attend so we have a member of the governing coalition on the Social Democratic side. To you Peter, what do you think? How long do you think she’s going to last.”
Pieter Cleppe: “Well, you can see that she’s having a problem in terms of popular support. Her key policy this summer of bailing of Greece is not supported by the majority of German people.”
CB: “Stephen, what do you think?”
Stephen Brown: “Personally, I think you shouldn’t underestimate Merkel’s ability to pull through this one. I think she’s got an awful lot of admiration abroad for what she’s done. She’s having a tough time convincing the German public, voters, taxpayers, that it’s worth doing; but I think she’ll do it actually.”
CB: “This refugee crisis, Merkel was criticised at the beginning for being too tough on the refugees, and later for being too soft. Has she failed to strike a happy medium or is that even possible? Jo?”
JL: “She’s opened the bottle and doesn’t know for time-being how to close it again. So of course, the message “come to Germany and there’s a welcome culture” has spread all over the Middle-East and of course we cannot integrate millions of people in one country, in Germany. So her big task is to look for European solidarity. Does she get the European Union to act and to work. And that’s the test for her ability to lead this European policy.”
CB: “A test of leadership and also she’s been making the argument that if you do close the borders too fast you could cause the Balkans to explode. What do you think Stephen?
SB: “I think that’s one of the risks, the other thing is that she may’ve spotted an opportunity. There is this argument, possibly optimistic, that like the United States when it welcomed the mass wave of immigration, that gave it a huge boost to its growth. It could be the case with Germany which has a chronic shortage of labour at the moment. Maybe these are the people that are going to fill that after a couple of years it’s going to take to integrate them, teach them German and bring them into the workforce.”
CB: “But how much is this playing into the hands of the far-right Peter?”
PC: “Well, fundamentally, I think immigration is a very good thing of course. But now, I think the limits are being reached and Germany’s policy has been troubled by a whole set of taboos for example. First, Germany did not want to declare Turkey a safe country. Now they refuse to discuss options like the Australian approach, although this has been saving lives. So I think as long as this doesn’t change, it’s not going to be possible to guard the external borders of the Schengen zone.”
CB: “Ok, let me stay on this far-right question. Jo, how is the far-right going to benefit from this and how much is this going to threaten the grand coalition?”
JL : “Luckily, we don’t have a far-right like we see in other countries….
CB: “But they’re rising in the polls!”
JL: “It has already reached in the polls the level of Die Linke, the Left party and of course that will continue and it affects in the first place the Christian Democratic party, the ruling party.”
CB: “So will it push them to the right?”
JL: “We have a test in March, two major elections in Baden Wuerttemberg and Rheinland-Pfalz, and that’s I think the turning point (as to) where politics in Germany is going.”
CB: “Let me turn to Stephen, if the Christian Democrats have to move to the right, could this split the government?”
SB: “I think as Jo’s party leader Sigmar Gabriel as pointed out these are people who need some sort of representation. They’re right-wing people, they’re people with this anti-immigrant feeling. It’s difficult at the moment for the CDU to absorb them because their views are repulsive to a lot of mainstream voters. So I think what’s going to happen is that they’re going to have to try and; the AfD have got a opportunity, a unique opportunity to create a space for themselves.
CB: “The Alternative for Deutschland.”
SB: “The Alternative for Deutschland, the right wing party, yes.
CB: “Let’s shift very quickly now to the VW emissions scandal. Peter, how much is this hurting Merkel or is this teflon for her?”
PC: “I think it’s really unfair to blame this on Merkel, this is a problem for one particular company.”
CB: “But it’s her government that’s in charge and watching the industry?”
PC: “Well, ok it’s a failure of supervision I think but that’s so remote from the actual Chancellor that I don’t think this is going to get her into any trouble in any way to be honest.”
CB: “Jo, how much is this hurting Merkel?”
JL: “It’s not good for Germany, we had a clean image and now that image is a bit fragile and if that continues for the whole car industry, it has repercussion for politics, somehow, politics in Germany.”
CB: “It’s also hurting her stature when she goes to the climate summit in Paris?”
SB: “I think it is. At a time when she’s making a principled stand, what a lot of people say is a principled stand on immigration, when she made a very dramatic policy decision on nuclear power, she’s kind of being undermined by the fact that Germany’s technological prowess and transparency, crucially on such an important issue, has been undermined by a private company.”
CB: “And how much are we feeling this now on a European level, in terms of European leadership because so many people look to the “powerfrau” to be settling certain issues and scores and crises. Jo, what are you seeing here on the ground in Brussels?”
JL: “Donald Tusk, the President of the European Council, just spoke out that Germany is the biggest country it has to have a lot of leadership and therefore it would be good for Europe that the German government is strong and not breaking apart because we have so many government that are weak and struggling at the edge of existing.”
CB: “So Merkel weakened, what kind of impact is that having on a European level, Peter?”
PC: “Well, at the end of the day if the German government would collapse prematurely; most likely if the refugee crisis would escalate, then this would lead to change, I think on a European level. And it would not necessarily be for the worse. I think that some of the taboos that have been troubling effective policy for years now are finally being throw overboard, and also in the EU debate, for example the UK agenda of Cameron could really be something that addresses some of the problems in France with the far-right, so I don’t think this will be a bad thing.”
CB: “Do you see it that way Stephen?”
SB: “I think the problem is there are no other obvious candidates to lead Europe at the moment. David Cameron, is possibly leaving Europe, Spanish leader Rajoy is possibly leaving office, Francois Hollande has limitations to his power to lead Europe anyway. Who else is going to do it? Don’t know if it’s going to be someone in Brussels.”
CB: “Who else Jo?”
JL: “I don’t there are taboos. If we endanger the Schengen system, if we really endanger the monetary system, what is left? We have then the Europe of nations we are closing borders, we are renationalising policies; is that the good answer to the future of a globalised world, Europe in a globalised world? So, I hope we can still manage the refugee crisis, as hard as it is, as we’ve done with the financial crisis.