The recent regional elections in Germany, in which the anti-immigration Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party exceeded all earlier projections of voter support, have delivered a powerful blow to Angela Merkel’s government. AfD’s gains have been accompanied by a massive surge in voter participation in Germany as citizens rallied overwhelmingly around a single issue agenda: Merkel’s heretofore open policy on migration. Judging from exit polls, the governing establishment parties (both Merkel’s CDU and her coalition SPD) have taken a serious beating across the board. More importantly, the results in these mid-term Land elections could be a predictor of what is to come in the next German federal balloting in 2017.
This election in Germany, more so than intra-EU squabbling over obligatory quotas of MENA migrants or the effort to cut a deal with Turkey to slow down the flow, marks a turning point in Europe’s political power distribution. It impacts not just how the European Union will ultimately handle the migration crisis, but also how the whole European project moves forward hence. The Merkel government, which not long ago was able to dictate the terms in Greece, set the azimuth on the future of the eurocurrency, and demand immigrant resettlement quotas, has just lost some of its ability to shape its own domestic political agenda.
The ripple effects of the German voter rebellion against Merkel’s open-door immigration policy will rapidly be felt across the continent. It will not matter much that the Chancellor has tried to modify it after the fact, reaching out to Turkey and seeking ways to slow down the migration inflow, with NATO and the EU looking for joint solutions to strengthen the borders. If anything, the public rejection of Merkel’s policy has reinforced the sense that her leadership has failed to grasp fully the complexity of the nearly thirty-year-old European Union—especially the enduring strength of the national identity politics of its newer members and the ultimate insularity of state interests in the United Kingdom, France, and Spain. Today, regardless of how Germany ultimately adjusts its immigration policy, the amount of damage done to the EU’s cohesion by Merkel’s initial open door policy will endure. It has already reinforced an increasingly nationalized approach to managing immigration by individual member states, while feeding the European public opinion’s growing anti-Brussels sentiment.
The anti-Merkel vote in Germany also casts in a different light the early decision by Viktor Orban of Hungary to build a fence across his country’s border, and, more recently, the refusal by France to take in more migrants, the ongoing resistance in Poland to the mandatory resettlement quota system advocated by the EU Commission, and the Macedonian government’s decision to close the country’s border completely. Likewise, the creeping de facto reintroduction of national border controls across the Schengen Zone is but the latest reaffirmation of what was once derided in Berlin, Vienna, and Brussels as the “Orbanization of Europe.” This was, in hindsight, at least on the border question, a prudent if clumsily executed effort to manage the flow so as to stay attuned to the public mood in the European Union and to preserve individual states’ absorption capacity. Whatever one thinks of Orban’s questionable economic and foreign policy priorities, he correctly anticipated the public’s resistance to the current wave of MENA migrants.
The election results in Germany are another indicator that the brave new world of post-unification Germany and a post-Lisbon EU is fast giving way to a Europe where national sovereignty concerns and questions of national cultures—heretofore largely ignored by Europeans—have been forced into the open by Merkel’s rash decision to open Germany’s border to the million-plus and counting migrants who crossed into Europe last year. It will be left to historians to debate what motivated the Chancellor to force such a clear-cut choice on the public, and why she believed that her own citizenry would side with her appeals to the better angels of their nature. Merkel’s open door decision on immigration has to be seen as a fundamental misreading of both her nation’s mood, and perhaps even more importantly her ability to coalesce other EU leaders around it.
So where is Germany now in relation to other states in the European Union and Europe more broadly? The consensus since the 1990 unification was that Germany would, over time, emerge as the agenda-setter and the leader of post-Cold War Europe. Indeed, initially Berlin navigated with caution as it sought to adapt to its new role while still keeping to the country’s traditional parameters that it act within a larger European consensus, within NATO and alongside the Americans. Though they occasionally deviated from this pattern, as for instance during the Transatlantic tension over Iraq in the Schroeder era, the overall sense that in order to be German the country had to be European first and foremost generally held. This began to change as the response to the 2008 global economic crisis jettisoned Berlin on its own trajectory, with its set of national economic prescriptions increasingly applied across the EU. When Grexit threatened, Merkel eventually pulled in the reins tighter still, sending an unequivocal message that a fundamental shift had occurred in how Berlin functioned in Europe—namely, that, on core economic issues at least, Europeans now had to be German first. The massive scope of the migration crisis took this process a step further, with the German Chancellor getting fast out front with her open border policy before even attempting to forge a workable consensus.
In hindsight, by taking the point on migration, Merkel wagered both her leadership in the EU and her political standing at home. (These have now become inextricably connected, for when other governments continued to balk at the migrant resettlement scheme, the brunt of her open door decision was ultimately felt at home.) And while Merkel has managed to continue to keep up the pressure on other governments to seek a collective solution, including reaching out to Turkey, the verdict just delivered by the German electorate leaves her with precious little room to maneuver at home, thus further weakening her ability to work a larger EU solution.
A weakened German government at a moment when the European Union project is reeling from multiple crises is bad news all around. For starters, it augurs a much more inward-looking Germany going forward. Some will rejoice perhaps that “Europe’s Iron Lady” has been cut down to size by her own people. But the larger question of a lack of leadership at the EU level and a deepening drift in Europe should be an urgent concern as much in Washington as it is today in Europe’s capitals. There is one enduring lesson from Angela Merkel’s political troubles that is worth repeating on both sides of the Atlantic: This is what happens when you don’t listen to your citizens.