What is driving Angela Merkel? This is the question on the lips of not just her usual critics, but also members of her own party. For the first decade of her chancellorship she took great care to tread carefully in domestic policies, always intent to avoid or assuage public opposition. Yet now, as if to mark her 10th anniversary in power, her strategy has radically changed.
Merkel’s suspension of the Dublin II accord and her decision to do away with all effective vetting of asylum applications submitted by Syrians looks certain to lead to an unprecedented number of migrants arriving in the country; according to the latest estimates, 1.5 million refugees are likely to have arrived in Germany in 2015 alone.
This has led not only to public criticism from protesters on the far right, but also to dissent within her own party. At a recent party gathering in the eastern German state of Saxony, CDU officials and local councillors openly questioned if their leader’s refugee policy took Germany’s genuine interests into consideration. When Merkel attended a plenary session of her parliamentary party this week, she was reminded by her chief whip that about a third of MPs may oppose her course because of the risk of sliding approval ratings.
Indeed, for the first time since the federal election in 2013, opinion surveys indicate popular support for Merkel’s CDU dipping below 40%. One leading polling institute suggests that a majority of voters disagree with the government’s handling of the refugee crisis. So what has led her to abandon her cautious course of old?
Theories abound on online forums and around the stammtische in your average German pub. Merkel has simply lost touch with ordinary voters over a decade in the job, say some. She was secretly angling for this year’s Nobel peace prize by putting her country at the service of an international refugee operation, say others. One commonly voiced view is that Merkel genuinely misjudged the situation this summer when she proclaimed with a view to the swelling refugees numbers heading for Germany: “Wir schaffen das.” (“We will cope.”) She asserted in no uncertain terms that Germany would continue to be a welcoming host to refugees. Anything else, she said, would “not be my country”. Now, the argument goes, she feels committed to her earlier pledge and does not see a way to go back on her words.
‘In private conversations with her inner circle, Merkel is known to speak freely about her wish to resign at a moment of her choosing, rather than wait for her party and voters to send her into retirement.’ Photograph: Martin Meissner/AP
What is making these theories hard to believe is that they give so little credit to the chancellor’s history as a shrewd and calculating political operator. Few other German leaders have ever shown a similar acumen in gauging popular currents and unfailing judgment when dealing with the fickle sentiments of her supporters.
Only a year ago the political magazine Der Spiegel revealed how Merkel’s every step was guided by data she drew from comprehensive and detailed opinion surveys which her office commissioned on a twice-weekly basis. As a result, her policies and rhetoric have throughout these years been meticulously aligned with public opinion. At times she even copied and pasted the pollsters’ own phrases into the speeches she delivered at party conferences. Indeed, until recently any criticism of her chancellorship stemmed from her tendency to shirk bold policies that were potentially unpopular.
Another answer seems more likely. After a decade at the helm, Merkel may be looking for an exit strategy that earns her recognition among the international community of political leaders whose discourse she seems increasingly to prefer over the narrow-minded bickering among her local party officials and parliamentary members.
German chancellors have a limited shelf-life. In private conversations with her inner circle, Merkel is known to speak freely about her wish to resign at a moment of her choosing, rather than wait for her party and voters to send her into retirement. Yet timing and circumstances are rarely forthcoming, which makes a leader’s exit often seem haphazard, at times outright messy.
Angela Merkel and Helmut Kohl
Helmut Kohl ‘hung on for eight years, thinking himself indispensable’. Photograph: Wolfgang Kumm/AFP/Getty
Merkel is keenly aware of this. The longest serving German chancellor and long-time leader of her party, Helmut Kohl, had been pondering retirement ever since he had successfully overseen the country’s reunification, yet reluctantly hung on for another eight years, thinking himself indispensable. Konrad Adenauer, Germany’s first postwar chancellor, stayed on until age and frailty had transformed this erstwhile celebrity leader into an electoral liability. In the 1970s, Social Democrat Willy Brandt looked tired and worn-out by a recent spying scandal when he handed over office to his deputy.
Merkel may well have picked different role models whose example she is intent to follow: chancellors who went down in heroic political battles for what they perceived to be worthy and honourable causes. Helmut Schmidt in 1982 lost power in the wake of an epic political struggle over the deployment of American medium-range nuclear weapons – supported by him against the protests of his party’s pacifist wing. Gerhard Schröder, Merkel’s immediate predecessor, had pushed through parliament a radical reform agenda to get the country’s spluttering economy back on track. While his reformist zeal doomed his chancellorship, it earned him much praise among economists and international leaders in the long run.
To Merkel, these may be appealing models to follow. She is confronted with a similar situation: the refugee crisis has handed her an opportunity to stamp once and for all a visible and lasting mark on German and international politics – while engendering a potentially lethal storm at the home front. In the end, going down with flying colours for a worthy cause she believes in may be just what Merkel is aiming for.