Merkel Bakes Humble Pie
Chancellor Angela Merkel this summer opened Germany's doors to refugees, resulting in a chaotic onslaught. Now Merkel has thrown in the towel. Pressured to stem the refugee tide, she personally visited Turkey to request that it do more to keep the refugees where they are. In return, Turkey flatly demanded membership in the European Union, which many EU governments oppose. But they and Merkel hardly have a choice.
Not two months after Germany's Angela Merkel courageously said "Wir Schaffen Das" (‘we will make it') to Germans to assuage concerns about the influx of refugees, she is now forced to admit that perhaps Germany and the European Union cannot make it after all.
In her own country, there are tell-tale signs that the mood is changing. Cities are hardly able to cope with the streams of refugees pouring in. Local, regional, and federal institutions are overwhelmed. In Berlin, hundreds of refugees are camped out at administrative agencies where immigration officers decide who gets refugee status. It takes on average 50 days before a case is handled. Riots have ensued in asylum centers, and cities have to rely on volunteers to help out with aid logistics.
In the meantime, on the domestic political front, the Alternativ für Deutschland party (AfD), which rose to prominence on a platform opposing the euro and aid to Greece, and which has switched its focus now to anti-refugee rhetoric, in one recent poll rose to 7 percent of the vote. Were elections held today, the AfD would sit well above the 5 percent parliamentary treshold enshrined in the German Constitution and thus would enter the Bundestag. This is worrying members of Merkel's Christian Democratic Union party, as suddenly they now have a new, serious competitor on their right to deal with.
The pressure is not just domestic. Leaders throughout the European Union were never happy with Merkel's welcome to refugees. Hungary, Austria, and Croatia fumed -- they knew what would happen: Refugees would come to their borders in mass numbers, on their way to Germany.
The refugee crisis shattered the European Union's model of consensus politics, with Eastern European member states in open revolt against Berlin and Brussels.
Asking the impossible
The mantra that has now taken hold in the European Union's body politic is that of regional refuge. Countries neighboring Syria, such as Turkey, should provide more and better shelter to the refugees so that they stay there and not move on to Europe. The idea is that if the tide is stemmed, tensions between Eastern European member states and the rest will relax, while right-wing parties will lose momentum in the polls.
In Switzerland, the right-wing, anti-immigration Swiss People's Party on Oct. 18 notched a record electoral success, becoming the largest party in parliament. Although Switzerland is not an EU member, results like these profoundly worry the predominantly centrist governments in the European Union -- governments that are already facing down increasingly popular anti-immigration parties on their own turf.
The problem is that Turkey already has more refugees than it can handle.
Turkey now offers shelter to more than 2 million Syrian refugees, figures by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees show.
During the EU leadership summit, which brought together the heads of all 28 member states on Oct. 14-15, Turkey's demands in exchange for helping the embattled EU governments became public. It wants €3 billion in refugee aid, the de facto abolishment of visa rules for Turks wishing to travel to EU countries, and the process of EU membership sped up.
It was also decided that Angela Merkel herself would travel to Turkey -- yet another demand of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is currently embroiled in a hard-fought election in which he hopes that his party achieves an absolute majority in parliament. His party would then be in a position to alter the Turkish constitution so as to give Erdogan more powers.
Erdogan beamed during a press conference in which he unpacked the presents from Brussels, Merkel sitting beside him. The press conference was widely televised, also on a Turkish satellite TV channel. It was no coincidence that Merkel was summoned, and not EU President Donald Tusk or the foreign representative, Frederica Mogherini. Approximately 1.4 of the 3 million Germans of Turkish origin are eligible vote in the Turkish national election, making it the sixth-largest voting precinct; existing visa rules are a major irritant to those wishing their Turkish relatives to come and visit. The idea of EU membership is still very popular with the Turks Erdogan wishes to woo to his party's side.
Erdogan's live campaign commercial, with Angela Merkel serving as stage prop, made painfully clear that the leaders of the European Union are so desperate that they will deal with a man most of them regard as a power-hungry despot. This while Russian President Vladimir Putin's sudden entrance into the Syrian civil war has made a quick end to the situation impossible.
The searing irony is that offering full EU membership to islamic Turkey is yet another red-hot button for many European voters. Right-wing parties are sure to seize on it in the coming months, providing Europe's centrist leaders with a new headache. Angela Merkel would do well to stock up on the ingredients for humble pie.