The stream of refugees that has thrown Europe into crisis is made up of thousands upon thousands of individual tragedies.
In 2016, there may well be another, different kind of victim: Angela Merkel.
Over the past decade, the German chancellor has become the “indispensable European” through an effective if unspectacular stewardship of the continent’s most powerful country. Little more than a month ago, she was named Time magazine’s 2015 person of the year.
So it’s striking that there now is open talk in Germany – and throughout Europe – about whether she can survive politically.
If she does fall, it will be the result of an unexpected burst of idealism. Specifically, it will be because she insisted on applying to the refugee crisis what people familiar with her background say are the principles she learned as the daughter of an Evangelical Lutheran pastor in East Germany.
Winter, a time of cold weather and rough seas, is supposed to be the season when the flow of refugees through Turkey and Greece and northwest into Europe slows down. Members of the European Union, aware that free movement of people and goods within the EU is in jeopardy, appeared to be betting that they had time to make sure the new year wasn’t simply a repetition of 2015, when more than 1 million people arrived.
They miscalculated again. An estimated 55,000 people crossed the Mediterranean in the first 28 days of the year, according to the International Organization for Migration. Border officials in Bavaria told the BBC that 3,000 to 4,000 people were arriving in southern Germany per day. At that rate, the number of arrivals in Germany this year would actually surpass 2015.
There have been the predictable accidents. On Saturday, about 40 people died when a boat capsized off the Turkish coast. And European attitudes are hardening.
A wave of harassment and sexual assaults in Cologne on New Year’s Eve, allegedly by men of North African or Arab appearance, focused attention on Germany’s open-door policy.
Sweden, which has accepted more people per capita than any other European country, announced last week it may send 80,000 back. Denmark imposed stringent new measures, including authorizing officials to confiscate money and valuables and delaying family reunifications. Hungary’s prime minister wants to build a wall to fence off Greece.
Merkel, who has lived on the wrong side of one, is not a big fan of walls.
The chancellor pressed Germany, and the rest of the Europe in 2015 as a matter of principle to open their borders and their doors to the waves of people fleeing violence or repression in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Eritrea and elsewhere. Many others are seeking economic opportunity. Germans took by far the largest number, and showed great generosity. However, the welcome is wearing thin. And Merkel’s political allies are deserting her, notably the powerful Bavarian branch of her Christian Democratic Union.
Writing in Germany’s Der Spiegel in recent days, Markus Feldenkirchen and Rene Pfister took a deep dive on the questions of what is driving Merkel, and whether she will be able to survive.
While Merkel’s downfall is by no means a certainty, they say a rough draft for how it would play out already exists and that “a critical mass is slowly coalescing.” Members of parliament and at least one Cabinet minister are publicly demanding she change course on immigration.
One reason Merkel has survived as long as she has, Feldenkirchen and Pfister add, is that “she has never fought for a larger political project. She had no great political goals.”
Until now. What is it about the immigration issue that means so much to Merkel? And why is she so unyielding about it?
While there are practical considerations, the Spiegel writers said those don’t really provide an answer. They quoted a former mayor of Hamburg who knew Merkel’s parents, and a pastor who, like Merkel, is from the former East Germany. Both pointed to her religious upbringing behind the Iron Curtain.
The pastor, Rainer Eppelmann, said the house in which Merkel grew up was not only a parsonage, but a home for people with disabilities. “She breathed in empathy like air and oxygen,” he said, and learned not to value herself above other people – no matter who they were or where they came from. Having lived in East Germany, she also knows full well what it’s like to live under a repressive government.
Compare Merkel’s statements on the immigration crisis with those of the church, Eppelmann says. They’re virtually identical.
So, does Merkel have a political death wish?
If she is motivated primarily by religious principles, are they incompatible with what she needs to do to govern a powerful modern country? Which is she willing to sacrifice? Or is it a false choice? Is there a way to remain true to her principles and close that door – at least a bit?
Tough questions. But worth asking – and probably more likely to yield a solution than building another wall.