Merkel, and the avoidable migration political crisis within the EU

July 2, 2018
July 2, 2018
World Elections

Living in London, one gets used to the summers. They bring with them heat, a frustration with the lack of air conditioning, and the annual EU crisis. The latter always seem to occur over the summer. In 2012 the financial position of the Greek government was at the center of attention, while the following year it was Syria’s worsening Civil War. In 2014, it was Russia’s seizure of the Crimea, and the at the time very real prospect that Russian forces would not stop there or at Donetsk, but roll right on into Kiev. These fears had given way the following year to the migration crisis triggered in part by Europe’s failure to resolve Syria’s civil war one way or another – an Assad or rebel victory, though by the end of the summer it had mutated from contingent crisis relating to Syrian refugees to an indefinite flow of Sub Saharan African economic migrants. It would continue to simmer below the surface, with political refugees from Syria and Afghanistan and economic migrants from Eritrea, increasingly conflated not just in public mind but also in policy. In 2016, it took a backseat to the aftermath of Brexit, in which the perception that the EU’s migration policy was out of control may have played no small part in swinging the 52-48 result. Now, this summer, we are back to migration.

It is a different crisis. In some ways this is a testament to the EU’s success. Whereas in 2015, the major pathway into Europe was overland from the Middle East through the Balkans, harsh policies by Eastern European governments, and an opportunistic deal with Turkish President Recep Erdogan, have largely closed this route. Instead, the major avenue is the Mediterranean Sea, where human traffics have made an industry out of towing migrants in what are in effect inflatable rafts into international waters, and then waiting for them to be rescued by ships operating for European NGOs. It is therefore hardly surprising, and not particularly indicative of anything, that overall migration rates are down from 2015; the sea route is much less efficient. Nor is it without reason that the front-line states bearing the brunt of the cost of taking in the migrants after they are rescued by northern European based NGOs such as Italy see such NGO operations as encouraging if not outright partaking in the human trafficking industry. It is then, hardly surprising that the newly installed Interior Minister of Italy, Mateo Salvini, whose right-wing League, a former secessionist turned populist party came second in the March elections but is now polling in first, has gained popularity by blocking them from landing.

It is also not entirely untrue when the left alleges that the current controversy over migration in the EU is “manufactured” by politicians. Where they err is in which ones have manufactured it. Their allegation, the usual, is that because migration is down, there can be no crisis, and as migration is not a problem in their view, and theirs is self-evidently the only informed factual one, it was not really a problem in the first place. Hence it is demagogues who have built up the issue. The closest they have come to grasping the center of the issue is when they have focused on the domestic traveils of Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany.

It is true that Merkel has come under attack on migration – both domestically where she is engaged in a crisis with her longtime coalition partners in the Bavarian based Christian Social Union, and abroad where the migration issue has come to symbolize and crystalize wider resentment over German domination of European institutions. But this is not to say Merkel is being punished for her “bravery”. Quite the contrary, it is Merkel who deliberately sought to associate herself with migration, and thereby link her own political survival with that of migrants in an effort to head off domestic challengers, and to make it impossible for the center-left not to do everything in their power to preserve her political career. And it has been this cynical ploy, more than anything else, which has destroyed any prospect of political consensus around migration by tying it to an unpopular political figure, and discrediting the viability of the center-left opposition.

In order to understand how this came about, it is worth considering the political history of the Christian Democratic Party/Christian Social Union, and the strategy which has allowed it to govern Germany for 49 of the 69 years since the founding of the Federal Republic. Not only is that an unprecedented record given the instability of Weimar, but it was matched by the longevity of Chancellors. Konrad Adenaurer served for 17 years, Helmut Kohl for 16, and Angela Merkel for 13. At the heart of this was Adenaurer’s determination to allow “no party to the right” of the CDU to gain a foothold in German politics. Under such an approach the opposition Social Democrats might occasionally cobble together a government, but it would always be unstable, and could only be done by winning over discontented centrist voters. As such, elections would always be fought on the center to center-right. With no viable option further to the right, the CDU would be free to appeal to this demographic.

Merkel, the first party leader to emerge from the former East Germany has abandoned this approach. Partially this was a result of changes in the political constellation. German politics had operated under a tripartite 2.5 party system with the CDU and SPD dominating, and the liberal Free Democratic party occasionally holding the balance. Starting in the 1980s, the left-leaning Greens entered parliament, and after moderating in the 1990s, became a more natural partner for the SPD than the FDP.  The problem, however, arrived with the entrance of Der Linke or The Left on the scene in 2005, an alliance between the old East German Communists and dissident SPD members. A non-viable partner for the SPD, it sucked up enough votes to ensure that neither the CDU-FDP nor the SPD-Greens enjoyed a majority in all but one of the four elections held under Merkel. The result was with the exception of the 2009-2013 term, which saw the FDP go from 14% of the vote to failing to make the 5% threshold to enter the Bundestag in 2013 after serving in Merkel’s government, Merkel has been left with a grand coalition with the SPD.

While a product of mathematical necessity, Merkel has been far from uncomfortable with the arrangement. Serving in government, it has been hard for the SPD to credibly pose as an alternative in elections, while the arrangement has also allowed Merkel to sell her own party on policies to the left of what they might otherwise have preferred. There are problems, however, with the lack of an opposition, one of which is that the lack of a viable opposition has accelerated the fragmentation of the party system. Democracy was never designed to function without an alternative government. In fact, evidence from British history indicates that representative government can function fine without democracy, but not without the ability to throw Ministers out of office. Without the ability to vote against the government, voters have no choice but to cast ballots against the system, with an opposition victory the signal for revolution, not a change of Ministries. That was the French and Spanish experience in the 19th century. On a level closer to home, it was also the Weimar experience. No matter which “Democratic” party voters cast ballots for, the same Ministers remained in office with the same parties in coalition, leading unhappy voters to cast ballots for anti-system parties, only to in turn force the pro-Weimar parties into ever more necessary grand coalitions.

This fragmentation has been exacerbated by a similar dynamic within the CDU. Democratic leaders who stay too long create frustration. Politics is a forum of ambition, and the ability to move up is often dependent on the longevity of those ahead of you. Given enough time, lieutenants inevitably turn into crown princes, and then centers of opposition. Elite turnover occurs in generations. When a leader like Merkel or Thatcher enter office, it is usual with a cabinet they did not chose, representing the compromises they made to reach the party leadership. Filled with defeated rivals and other bigwigs, they are forced to cede control of Ministries to individuals whose own leadership ambitions live on in the mixed hopes that a failure of the government will result in their own call to office. Once reelected, leaders are often able to dispense with such baggage, replacing them with personal proteges who had backed them early. These dominate their team in the middle years. Yet, after another election or two, usually around the ten year point, these individuals find themselves being sidelined. Support the leader’s campaign they did, but they knew the leader as a mortal, a figure in opposition. That leaves them inclined to challenge someone who, vindicated by electoral success and surrounded by toadies who know them only as electorally infallible, has less and less time for doubt. The result is that this generation of leaders is increasingly ousted and replaced by those toadies. Their own interest is then in trying to force out the leader.

Merkel’s problem is the lack of opposition outside the CDU, combined with the sidelining of the old guard within it, has built up a legion of frustrated juniors. Increasingly unable to defend her policies within the CDU, she has fallen back on the need to argue the indispensability of the grand coalition, and necessity of embracing these policies to maintain the support of the SPD. This became increasingly important in 2015 as the SPD’s own base began to grow restive, leading the party to experiment with coalitions with the Left at the state level. This was particularly ominous as due to the failure of the FDP, or the then new Alternative for Germany(AFD) to enter the Bundestag, the Greens, Left and SPD actually held a narrow majority, 317 to 313, in the Bundestag after the 2013 elections.

Migration as an issue was a useful wedge. Not only was it an issue with strong emotional appeal to the middle class intellectuals who increasingly made up the heart of the rump SPD, but it divided them from the former East German Communists in the Left, while also countering the greatest charge against the grand coalition, namely that it was a government without principles. Here, then, was a principle on which Merkel and her government were willing to die on.

While successful in this respect, it however, also meant that discontent with Merkel took on a new form. As Merkel was, until 2015, ideologically formless, so too was her opposition. Her internal opponents too needed a principle beyond naked careerism, and so they too embraced the Migration issue with relish. The result has been a strange intersection of careerism and politics. With Merkel showing no interest in setting a date for her own departure or naming a successor, it is clear she intends to remain in office until she falls, which in turn means that her successor will either be an anti-Merkel member of her own party, or someone from a different party altogether. As such, for simple reasons of self-interest, there is zero incentive for any major figure to identify themselves with her on migration, while on the contrary, anyone with ambitions has a clear reason to do the opposite. This applies even to her own creations. Toadies after all got to where they are by reading the tea leaves. Those now point to the utility of being on the “right” side of the issue.

The result has been an almost total polarization of the CDU/CSU and German politics whereby opposition to migration has become identical to opposition to Merkel. This has for sure had the desired effect on the SPD. They were forced into yet another grand coalition against their will largely due to fears that if they did not, no one else would be able to sustain Merkel’s policies regarding migration. But it has badly weakened them in the process, with some pollsters showing them in third behind the AFD. And as they are the only viable center for an alternative government, their eclipse makes it more likely Merkel’s defeat will have to come at the hands of an internal party challenger, running against her migration policies.

On a wider level too, Merkel’s identification with the issue has backfired. Germany is far from popular in southern Europe due to its perceived role in European economic policy. That it is precisely those countries most effected by the sovereign debt crisis – Greece, Italy, and Spain – which are at the front-lines of the migration issue has reinforced the resentment at German domination at the same time it has identified it with a liberal approach to migrants.

Merkel’s success at prolonging her own rule has then come at a cost. She has done so by identifying her survival so closely with a liberal and welcoming approach to migration, that any potential challenger has to adopt the contrary. And by making clear she will never relinquish her position willingly, she has ensured she will be supplanted in the end by such a challenger. One can argue whether those allowed to stay in Germany in 2015 benefited enough outweigh these harms, but in the long run, it is far from clear that her cynical ploy will be the benefit of anyone. Not the migrants, not Germans, not the EU, and not her own party.


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