Merkel and refugee crisis: What does it mean for German politics?

Angela Merkel’s strategy re refugee crises is criticized as by many, even inside her party. And Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel’s statement is also quite interesting as he says refugee spending like stimulus package. Read few comments on German politics by Christian Schweiger, Senior Lecturer in Government, Department of Politics, Durham University.

You will probably have seen my rather critical comments of Merkel’s handling of the refugee crisis on Twitter and I still stand by them. Although she was initially widely praised (and still is) in parts of the German and European media from my perspective she did not handle the crisis very well. This is also why she is now facing mounting critical voices from within her own party, the SPD and of course still from the Bavarian CSU. In my opinion it was a big mistake for Merkel to phrase the initial response to the increasing wave of refugees in a way that suggested that Germany would essentially be prepared to accept everyone. The statement she made about there being no limits to asylum claims in Germany, coupled with the mobile selfies she had taken with refugees, definitely encouraged many people not just from Syria but also from many other parts of the world to pack their bags and make their way to Germany. The mistakes continued afterwards when Merkel showed grave disregard for the position of partners in the EU who are critical of an open door policy for refugees and also a quota system, most of all the CEE countries but also the UK. I would argue that she has once again caused a deep rift in the EU and this has potentially very damaging long-term effects as the rest of the EU seems to start to get fed up with Germany’s ‘leadership’. After all austerity was already quite an imposition on many eurozone countries and Merkel’s government was perceived as very uncompromising towards Greece.

Domestically the strategy also seems to fail as many regions and cities in Germany (most of all in Bavaria that receives thousands per day) are ringing the alarm bells because they already feel overburdened by the continuing flood of refugees. This has led to a gradual reversal of the SPD’s initial supportive position for Merkel and has of course completely alienated the Bavarian CSU. The political danger for Merkel lies in the possibility that if things get worse and opinion ratings for the CDU drop further her own party may revolt against her. Many commentators in Germany already argue that if her statement that ‘we can do this’ turns out to clash with the reality of increasing social pressures in German towns and cities, her period in office will soon come to an end as her party will replace her. You will have probably seen that German media reported today that an increasing number of CDU MPs openly criticised Merkel in yesterday’s parliamentary meeting. I assume that her days will now be numbered as she has clearly overreached herself with her stance on the refugee crisis but I could of course be wrong.

I am also very critical of Gabriel’s handling of the crisis. His initial statement that Germany could accept around half a million refugees per year seemed to be an attempt to outshine Merkel over her response to the crisis. When it started to backfire and Gabriel became confronted with criticism from regional SPD representatives he changed tune and has in recent weeks of course adopted a more cautious approach, most prominently in his recent joint article with Steinmeier, where both are calling for clear limits to migration.

The latest statement you refer to is another attempt to justify his initial enthusiastic response to the wave of refugees. Gabriel however faces a credibility problem amongst voters, especially amongst those on lower income scales who should be natural SPD supporters. The public will rightly ask why the SPD in government did not push for a more substantial investment in housing, schools and nursery places before the refugee crisis started. The SPD has of course initiated a number of initiatives for more public spending in this parliament but the reality is that there is a severe shortage of housing and nursery places in many regions, especially in traditional SPD strongholds such as in North Rhine Westphalia. I am therefore not very optimistic that Gabriel and the SPD will emerge well from the refugee crisis, on the contrary I think that opinion polls both for the SPD and the CDU will keep sliding downwards in months to come.


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