In spite of speculation that the German chancellor’s refugee policies may be her downfall, Merkel’s relatively open and liberal stance on refugees makes it easier for her to respond robustly to the attacks in France through security and foreign policy.
For years, Angela Merkel’s personal popularity ratings have been stratospheric and her Christian Democratic bloc (CDU/CSU) has had a robust lead in opinion polls. But during the refugee crisis, Merkel’s relatively open stance has led to her approval ratings dropping to their lowest level since 2011. Meanwhile the increasingly far-right party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) has gained in popularity. The terrorist attacks in Paris on November 13th have predictably provoked more criticism of Merkel’s refugee policies. But it would be premature to call time on the Merkel era. The combination of her open rhetoric and harsh measures to limit illegal immigration is allowing the CDU/CSU to maintain its hold over the political centre ground. Polling indicates that support for the Christian Democrats is stabilising, as voters faced with a security crisis rally around their leader. Merkel’s position as party leader and chancellor is not in danger.
In August, 45 per cent of Germans saw more advantages than disadvantages from immigration. This number dropped to 35 per cent in September and has since stayed stable at around that level (37 per cent in November). In light of these figures and weakening poll numbers, sceptics evoke a historical analogy. They recall that former Social Democrat chancellor Gerhard Schröder fell as a result of a reform package to liberalise the labour market that incited rebellion in his party, leading to the rise of the new The Left party. Merkel is looking at a similar rebellion over her policy towards refugees, they say. They point to angry voices on the CDU/CSU’s right wing, who no longer feel represented by their party leader, and to the rise of the AfD.
Up until now, the Christian Democrats have successfully prevented the emergence of a mainstream party to their right for three reasons. First, the CDU and its Bavarian sister party CSU is a broad coalition, with the CSU’s leaders traditionally allaying the anxieties of Germany’s more conservative voters (whether Bavarian or not), while the chancellor has held the centre ground. A few rebelling members of parliament, within limits, is part of this strategy. Even today, 86 per cent of CDU/CSU members are happy with Merkel as chancellor, and 81 per cent want her to run again in 2017.
Second, party discipline has always been strong in these parties, because they have often prioritised power over ideological purity or costly leadership quarrels. Third, right-wing populist parties have attracted xenophobes, anti-Semites, and nationalists, which quickly taints their brand in a Germany wary of its past.
But the CDU/CSU faces new challenges. It needs to cover an even wider spectrum than in the past: the middle ground of German politics is more liberal, while far-right voters feel less constrained by the country’s past. Forty-three per cent of Germans see the country’s Willkommenskultur (welcome culture) as too politically correct, according to a poll, and feel they cannot openly express their concerns about the refugee crisis. Such sentiments are a fertile breeding ground for populist parties that claim to be giving a voice to ‘concerned citizens’. The increasingly far-right party AfD has won supporters – enough to win seats in the Bundestag if elections were held today – after transforming itself from an anti-euro party into an increasingly far-right, nationalist and anti-refugee party. After the terrorist attacks in Paris, polling by the conservative Insa Institute put the AfD as Germany’s third-strongest party for the first time, at more than 10 per cent.
But AfD cannot threaten Merkel without restraining the xenophobic rhetoric of some of its regional leaders, which is proving difficult. Moreover, even if the AfD entered the Bundestag, it could not seriously harm the CDU/CSU’s prospect of retaining power, nor Merkel’s chances of being re-elected chancellor in 2017. As long as Merkel keeps to the centre ground, the arithmetic of German politics favours the CDU/CSU: the AfD would reduce the relative share of the left parties (SPD, The Greens and The Left) in the Bundestag, making Merkel’s party even more indispensable for any governing coalition.
The chancellor’s stance on refugees has been less impetuous than many have claimed. Merkel’s approach has been rooted in her usual crisis management strategy. She develops her policies cautiously over time – waiting for a public consensus to form, weighing her political options, and working towards a solution that keeps her in power. As the refugee crisis unfolded, the chancellor initially remained on the sidelines of the debate and only chose to ‘be bold’ when a Willkommenskultur materialised throughout Germany. If she had insisted on traditionally conservative and restrictive policies, she would have vacated the centre ground to the SPD and The Greens. Instead, she integrated many of the more left-wing policies on refugees into a Christian-conservative narrative. This strategy has served her well in the past, on issues such as the introduction of a minimum wage or withdrawal from nuclear power.
#Merkel has integrated left-wing policies on #refugees into a Christian-conservative narrativePolls show that the German population’s biggest concerns about refugees are linked to the economic and fiscal impact, followed by worries over heightened competition in the housing market and the influence of Islam in Germany. Merkel knows that Germany has the economic strength to cope with the additional costs of integrating refugees, as a study by DIW, a think-tank, has recently confirmed. Germany is running a budget surplus so it can easily finance expenses such as housing for refugees, as even the fiscally-conservative Bundesbank has recently argued. Moreover, in the current European economic situation of low demand and low inflation, additional spending by Germany is a welcome stimulus. Over the medium term, if Germany manages to integrate refugees into the labour market, its demographic problems could be partially mitigated.
Merkel’s main objective at the moment is to demonstrate that she is in control. Her relatively open and liberal stance on refugees makes it easier for her to respond robustly to the attacks in France through security and foreign policy. Germany had already implemented tougher rules on refugees, including faster deportation, in October. After Paris, Merkel is aiming for resettlements of refugees currently living in or passing through Turkey according to a specific allocation key. In exchange, Ankara would promise to block refugees outside of that quota from coming to Europe. This policy allows Merkel to limit immigration without imposing an absolute cap that would be difficult to uphold.
#Merkel's liberal stance on refugees makes it easier for her to respond robustly to the #ParisAttacksIn foreign policy, her first step was to offer financial and political incentives to Ankara to help reduce the flow of Syrian refugees. At the G20 summit in Antalya, two days after the attacks in Paris, the chancellor stressed the importance of securing Europe’s external borders and Turkey’s crucial role in the process. Her policy has contributed to the EU turning a blind eye to Turkey’s human rights record – in particular recent attacks on the freedom of the press – and to re-energising Turkey’s accession process. Tougher security policies in Germany, or even German involvement in the war against Daesh, could follow – while the chancellor maintains her open and liberal rhetoric on refugees.
Merkel retains the support of a large part of Germany’s political spectrum. A recent poll found that 60 per cent of Germans believe that no other politician in Germany could do a better job of steering the country through the refugee crisis and responding to the threat of terrorism. She still has room to further tighten policies on refugees, while being more assertive on security and foreign policy. Merkel looks like remaining the EU’s dominant political figure for some time to come.
Christian Odendahl is chief economist and Sophia Besch is the Clara Marina O'Donnell fellow at the Centre for European Reform.