Refugee Dilemma Vienna's About-Face and Merkel’s Fate

Chancellor Angela Merkel has to explain to her citizens what she has in mind as a possible Plan B, argues Handelsblatt's Berlin bureau chief.
Austria wants to halt the surge of refugees entering the country.

Suddenly, the German chancellor has a lot on her plate.

First, several Eastern European countries were anything but supportive of Angela Merkel's policies on refugees. Then, several Northern European countries introduced strict border controls. And now Germany’s southern neighbor and close ally on the refugee issue, Austria, has suddenly called for a cap on how many refugees should enter the country.

All this is happening in the heart of Europe and casting doubts on the European Union.

The about-face decision in Vienna on Wednesday is particularly damaging for the chancellor. Her Austrian counterpart, Werner Faymann, was until now a key backer of Ms. Merkel’s position on the refugees and staunchly defended her “We can do it” approach to the crisis. But Mr. Faymann now has had to concede to external realities and internal political pressures.

Barack Obama won his election with the slogan "Yes, we can." But in Germany Ms. Merkel could, ironically, end up losing her job as chancellor with her similarly sounding slogan "We can manage it."

But what is worse for Ms. Merkel is that a pan-European Union agreement by the bloc's leaders seems to be moving further and further away from reality. While Ms. Merkel is doing everything she can to keep the refugee crisis in Europe at bay, many European states are going down their own perilous national path. There isn’t much left of European unity and the historic idea of a unified continent could collapse because of the selfishness of these nations.

On Wednesday, German President Joachim Gauck delivered a speech at the economic summit in Davos on the issue that was particularly noteworthy. According to Mr. Gauck, placing limits on the number of refugees a country admits can be morally justifiable and can help hold up the acceptance levels of that nation’s populace. He said there was no simple mathematic formula for the willingness of societies to integrate newcomers.

Finding strategies in limiting the number of newcomers is part of good governance, Mr. Gauck added. Whether he ever discussed these statements with the chancellor or not, it would be incredible if the chancellor has not yet devised a Plan B.

Officially, however, Ms. Merkel hasn't changed course yet. The Austrian decision will have no effect on efforts to find a pan-European solution, the chancellery announced. But Ms. Merkel’s staff is already most likely working intensively on a face-saving plan that would avoid the loaded term "limits."

The essence of the plan will, however, have to include strategies to turn away refugees at Germany's borders. Anything less than that wouldn't reflect the changing reality.

Whether that will be enough for Ms. Merkel to deflect attention from the fact that she would be revising her original stance is far from clear. Ms. Merkel will have to announce her change in course in an official manner.

It has since been all but forgotten that Ms. Merkel disarmed doubters of her refugee politics in October – in a manner that was rather direct for her standards. In a German late night talkshow called “Anne Will,” she boldy announced: “I have a plan.” The time is now rife for her to explain to the public what exactly her Plan B is. Everyone in Germany is waiting to hear it.

While the German economy is still doing quite well despite the refugee crisis, many Germans blame Ms. Merkel primarily for what they feel to be a lack of security. They have developed a strong sense of safety and well-being during the ten years of the chancellor’s rein. She always seemed to exude an air of tranquility and security at the same time regardless of whatever crisis was buffetting her country. No one will forget how she told German savers at the height of the Lehman Brothers crisis and the Hypo Real Estate meltdown: “We will tell savers that their deposit accounts are safe.“ Whoa! That was powerful.

In 2011, she instantly grasped how Germans were changing their minds on nuclear power in the wake of the Fukushima disaster. She abruptly pulled the plug on nuclear power in the country. That only temporarily hurt her popularity. The public's fears about a nuclear disaster were stronger. Even the German Energiewende, or transition to renewable energy, which has sent electricity prices soaring, hasn’t harmed her.

In the refugee crisis, however, everything seems to be different. Large segments of the population are alarmed. Nobody cares that Ms. Merkel has asked for more time.

U.S. President Barack Obama won his election in 2008 with the slogan: "Yes, we can." But in Germany Ms. Merkel could, ironically, end up losing her job as chancellor with her similarly sounding slogan: "We can manage it."

Whoever would have aired such heretical thoughts about Merkel possibly being on her last legs as chancellor just a few months ago in Berlin would have been dismissed as a fool. But today her close allies are scrambling to allay critics’ worst fears. Her party, the Christian Democratic Union, is excited about the regional elections in March in the states of Baden-Wurttemberg, Rhineland-Westphalia and Saxony-Anhalt. If the mood changes in these states and the CDU loses, people inside her party will ask whether the chancellor’s refugee course is viable.


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