In refugee crisis, Angela Merkel stands tall
Washington - Politicians who put their career on the line for doing the right thing are few and far between. But that is what German Chancellor Angela Merkel is doing as critics accuse her of having acted recklessly in opening the door to an immense flood of mainly Muslim refugees from Syria and other conflict zones.
For the first time in years, her approval rating — usually more than 70% — has slipped to less than 50%. Criticism has come not only from East European leaders, led by Hungary’s xenophobic Viktor Orban, but even from her own Christian Democratic Union and its Bavarian sister party.
Followers of the far-right Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident (Pegida) have been staging noisy anti-Merkel demonstrations. The populist right-wing Alternative fuer Deutschland says it is gaining followers.
Merkel stands firm. “We can cope,” is her standard reply to those who say that even in a country as proud of its efficiency as Germany, absorbing a million refugees or more in a year is a monumental enterprise with long-term consequences that will change the culture of the country.
The chancellor, not usually given to bold statements, has dismissed complaints boldly: “If we now have to start apologising for showing a friendly face in response to emergency situations, then that’s not my country.”
In the same vein: “I’m happy that Germany has become a country that many people outside Germany now associate with hope.”
The new Merkel, champion of refugees, would be a fitting addition to Profiles in Courage, the 1957 book by then-senator John F. Kennedy about politicians who risked losing popularity for doing the right thing.
Merkel has, as of November 22nd, been in power ten years and through much of her tenure she has been seen as a coolly calculating tactician, so much given to equivocation that her compatriots coined a new verb for her way of doing things — merkeln. It means refraining from stating clear opinions, playing your cards close to the chest.
Opinion polls show that a growing number of Germans wonder whether Merkel’s “we can cope” is wishful thinking and some widely publicized glitches in the vetting and absorption process have provided ammunition for critics. Such was the case of Sumte, a village of 102 inhabitants that was asked to accommodate 750 refugees.
The debate over the wisdom of opening the door so wide in September has rekindled speculation about the future of Merkel. Can she survive the refugee crisis and run, and win, a fourth term? The next federal elections are scheduled for September 2017 and Merkel said in August — before the refugee flood rose to unprecedented levels — that she intended to run.
However, there is renewed speculation that Merkel has an eye on a post that would enhance her global stature: secretary-general of the United Nations.
In February, a group of prominent women from academia formed the Campaign to Elect a Woman UN Secretary-General, pointing out that there have been eight men to hold the job since the world body was established 70 years ago. It’s high time for a woman, the group argues.
Merkel is on the group’s list of potential candidates, alongside such figures as International Monetary Fund boss Christine Lagarde, former Irish President Mary Robinson, former Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt and Federica Mogherini, the EU foreign policy chief. Before the campaign listed its candidates alphabetically, Merkel topped the list. Her stand on the refugee crisis has won applause from many UN members.
The present UN secretary-general, South Korea’s Ban Ki-moon, leaves office at the end of 2016. It is a post of global prestige but little actual power, which could be a disincentive for Merkel whose power has grown steadily since she became chancellor. Forbes magazine has ranked her “the most powerful woman on the planet” for nine of the last ten years running (she was No. 4 in 2010).
And while her star is fading, slightly, at home, it is shining brightly abroad. The latest of many accolades for the 61-year-old Lutheran pastor’s daughter: Her portrait on the cover of the Economist magazine, with the headline: The indispensable European. An editorial showers praise. “Look around Europe and one leader stands above all the rest: Angela Merkel… In her ten years in office, Mrs Merkel has grown taller with every upheaval.”