Friday 28 October 2016

Angela's bashers: Has Merkel's reputation now been tarnished?

Published 22/11/2015 | 02:30

Political casualty: Angela Merkel's call for an 'open border' policy could come back to bite her.
Political casualty: Angela Merkel's call for an 'open border' policy could come back to bite her.
Belgian Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the presumed mastermind of the attacks

Among the political casualties of the awful events in Paris is the most powerful political leader in Europe. Normally so sure-footed, critics believe the German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been caught out badly in her hasty call for Europe to take in all of the migrants on its borders, and has been further embarrassed by the report that one of the Paris terrorists apparently used the cover of the refugee influx to get into Europe.

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On the 10th anniversary of her chancellorship, this is not what Merkel needs. Only a year ago, she could do no wrong and had record approval ratings, but in recent months she has faltered and now faces open revolt, even from her own ministers.

Worse still, there is someone (technically) waiting in the wings, in the shape of her finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, who has long resented his second-tier status to the daughter of an East German pastor and who has now become openly critical of Merkel's policy. In fairness, the wheelchair-bound Schäuble is probably closer to the deep-down feelings of many Germans, and certainly of most East Europeans, who have reacted with alarm to Merkel's open-armed policy.

So how did it come to this?

A former German ambassador once told me that Germany was now where it did not want to be in modern-era Europe - in the driving seat.

Meaning that the Germans are running the show and, given the experience of history, that is a role they could have done without for at least another 100 years.

If this is the case, then the person in the driving seat is even more reluctant - Angela Merkel. Naturally cautious, Merkel would probably prefer that she was just running Germany itself - not a mean feat - but such is the paralysis and division in Europe that its most dominant member has to take an assertive, hands-on role. And its chancellor even more so.

Thus, Germany had to sort out the economic crisis in Greece, Cyprus, and, yes, in Ireland, too. As the real force within the EU, it dictates the terms of the troika and the approach of the European Central Bank. The real agenda here is protecting the euro, the currency for which the Germans gave up their Deutschmark and from which it has done very well, even if everyone else got into debt. In all of this, Merkel did very well, ably assisted by the tough Minister Schäuble.

But then the Ukraine crisis erupted and Merkel really had to perform as a world leader. Again, she did as well as could be expected, facing down the Russians and talking tough. The problem for the Germans is that the UK will not play a central role within the EU, and plans to play an even smaller one. This distorts things. It means the EU leadership is effectively Germany and France.

This is fine when there is a good personal chemistry, as there was with French President Sarkozy - the old 'Merkozy' formula - but with the weak Hollande, it is not so effective. But it is Merkel's 'open-door' policy that has really caused controversy at home.

Merkel believes that Germany can handle a record influx of some 800,000 asylum seekers in this year alone, and has refused to set a limit for the number Germany could take in. But Schäuble warned that Germany was facing an "avalanche" of refugees set off by a "careless skier" (Merkel is a dedicated skier) and the interior minister, Thomas de Maizière, twice acted unilaterally to introduce stricter controls on Syrian asylum seekers without informing Merkel.

Civil servants at the government refugee agency have warned that identity checks for Syrian asylum seekers were ineffective and open to abuse by economic migrants and terrorists.

But Merkel has vowed to continue her 'open-door' policy: "It is our principle to help people in need. We need to show the freedoms we enjoy in practice and help those in need. I cannot unilaterally define limits and we in Germany cannot simply determine unilaterally who can come and who cannot."

Other EU countries don't feel so generous, and nor do they have the resources to be such. Merkel may have expected the other EU states to just march to Germany's tune (a bit like on the issue of burning bank ­bondholders!)

Up to now, Merkel was seen as a sort of German version of Bertie Ahern, not making a decision until she really had to and an avid follower of opinion polls. Her critics believe she practiced followership rather than leadership.

However, by departing so dramatically from caution, and from German opinion, with her refugee policy, the chancellor may have damaged her popularity, and though she will undoubtedly survive for now, her image and credibility have been tarnished.

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