Saturday 22 October 2016

Tough times ahead for Merkel as Germans turn against refugees

Gerard O’Regan

Published 24/09/2016 | 02:30

German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Photo: Leonhard Foeger/Reuters
German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Photo: Leonhard Foeger/Reuters

'Angela Merkel thinks we are at work'

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We can still look back with a wry smile to that iconic banner hoisted by a few gung-ho Irish fans at the Euro 2012. It certainly raised a laugh or two in some unlikely quarters - not only here but in Germany.

It even made the front page of the German mass-circulation newspaper 'Bild', sending out a kind of international signal that although the Irish were in the financial mire, we had not completely abandoned our sense of humour.

That's all of six years ago and psychologically Ireland was certainly in a fairly grim place back then. We were paying the price for having messed things up big-time during our madcap Celtic Tiger days - with the fatalists insisting the possibility of national bankruptcy still hung in the air.

We owed billions because of a complex web of borrowing by our banks and others. There had been no way out of our nightmare but to take that infamous forced bailout, which would keep us in hock for decades.

Meanwhile, behind the scenes, we knew one woman more than any other individual was making the key decisions. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, we were also led to believe, had certain personality traits, which the critics insisted were lacking among the more feckless Irish.

For example, her aura of cautious frugality - despite the luxury of guiding the destiny of one of the world's most affluent countries - was deemed the polar opposite to the more spendthrift ways of those who lived in the Emerald Isle.

How could we explain Celtic Tiger-fuelled weekend New York shopping trips to a woman like her? And what would she think of all those Irish people, with huge bank borrowings, buying apartments they had never seen in far-away Bulgaria?

Through it all, Merkel, classically known as 'mutti' or mother to millions of Germans, played the role of the ultra-responsible parent, determined to keep her more wayward EU members in check. The Greeks may have tested her patience to the limit, but viewed from the heart of the Reichstag, the Spanish, Portuguese and ourselves were almost equally troublesome.

We were given to understand that this oh-so-sensible daughter of a Protestant clergyman, fashioned within the rigidity of communist East Germany, just couldn't figure out why we failed so abysmally to live within our means.

We also had to accept some harsh words from some of her ministers, who bemoaned our willingness to spend money we did not have. Eventually, there was no option but to knuckle down and, through gritted teeth, take our punishment.

Meanwhile, Merkel powered ahead, as German economic might dominated an entire continent.

Things have inevitably changed somewhat in the intervening four years. We have beaten ourselves up a fair bit in the interim, assuring all and sundry there will never again be a property bubble the likes of which brought us to near penury. We console ourselves that the austerity years have taught us the lesson of a lifetime.

For her part, Merkel continued to coast along, all powerful at home, while forging the future destiny of the EU like no other. But suddenly this past week signalled the end of an era, when her career as an uniquely charmed politician was convulsed by a sharp drop in popularity for her party, which took a battering in regional elections.

It was an almost overnight reversal of fortunes, brought about by her personal insistence that Germany accept an estimated one million refugees over the past year.

Public opinion polls show beyond doubt this huge movement of people has stirred some nascent fears and phobias in the German psyche; there has been a growth in the support for far-right politicians and Islamophobia is on the rise.

She now says she wishes she could "turn back time by many, many years'' so as to have better prepared the German public for such a huge wave of immigration, which she insisted "hit us out of the blue in the late summer of 2015''.

It was the closest she came to admitting she had got things wrong. But she remains essentially unapologetic about her refugee policy, suggesting the moral imperatives which guided her decision making have not changed.

Many observers have tried to work out what really drives the Merkel persona. On a superficial level, we know she loves football and has a huge fear of dogs. But it also seems she feels that Germany 'owes' the world because of the horrors of its Nazi era.

However, she is also a gut politician who revels in the use of power. After all, back in the day, she shafted her old mentor Helmut Kohl as part of a bid to kickstart her own career.

And so, as her deeply held personal convictions come into conflict with a gut instinct for political survival, Merkel is walking a tightrope and the next few months will tell a lot. If she falls by the wayside, as Brexit and other challenges mount, it will be hard to imagine Europe without her.

There are those who say that, despite a kind of mournful exterior, she is capable of a hearty laugh. No doubt she must have seen that Irish football banner on the cover of 'Bild' back in 2012 and it surely raised a chuckle or two. But Angela Merkel has little to smile about these recent days as she ponders some excruciating choices conflicting her head and her heart.

Irish Independent

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