The latest shock to the complacency of the international elite was the failure of one of its most stalwart leaders, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, to build a new coalition government following her narrow victory in the September 24 German election. During her 12 years in power, Merkel proved her ability to maintain the growth of the German economy while fashioning a steadily more unified Europe. She found a way to deal with every crisis that has arisen and forced the other leaders of Europe to accede to her leadership.
Her ability to maintain power in Germany by pragmatically adapting to domestic political challenges and forging a new consensus with opposition party leaders as necessary was a given. That was why it came as such a surprise when the leaders of her former coalition partner, the Social Democrats (SPD), initially refused to enter into talks to form a new governing coalition with her after the September election.
Merkel was then forced to negotiate with two smaller parties, the liberal Green Party and the business-oriented Free Democrats (FDP). Those talks broke down when Christian Lindner, the leader of the FDP, walked away, declaring, “It’s better not to govern than to govern in the wrong way.” His decision undermined Merkel’s hope to form a “grand coalition” among Germany’s mainstream political rivals for what she maintained would be for the good of the country and the goal of a more united Europe.
Suddenly, Merkel no longer seemed to be the indomitable force who held the disparate elements of the EU together for more than a decade through the power of the German economy and her iron political will. Reduced to the option of forming a minority government dependent upon the support of parties outside her coalition, or submitting to the indignity of going back to the German voters for another election, Merkel was suddenly seen as vulnerable. With her domestic political power vastly weakened, she was no longer in a position to provide the strong leadership that the European Union needs to reform itself, as internal dissatisfaction has grown across Europe with the EU’s unresponsive Brussels-based bureaucracy as well as regulations on a variety of issues in addition to immigration policy.
MERKEL’S IRRESPONSIBLE INVITATION
That resentment against the EU has been growing for years. It finally reached the breaking point when Merkel decided in September 2015 to issue an open invitation to a million refugees fleeing the carnage inflicted by the civil war in Syria. Refugees from lower profile conflicts raging across North Africa and the Middle East also responded to Merkel’s invitation.
In late 2014, the number of refugees who swarmed the borders of Europe seeking permanent residency through diplomatic asylum doubled. It then quickly doubled again after Merkel issued her call, creating chaos as an army of immigrants passed through other European countries on the way to Germany and Sweden. Their huge numbers strained the resources of the communities where they were being resettled, and created huge resentment among working class Germans, especially in economically deprived areas in the east, who felt jealous of the generous aid being lavished on the immigrants, while they were left behind. Other Europeans also resented the economic and social burden Merkel had imposed on them and their countries through her invitation to the immigrants.
PREDICTABLE ASSIMILATION PROBLEMS EMERGE
It quickly became apparent that many of the Islamic refugees were not able or willing to assimilate into the Western culture of their new host countries or abide by their rules of normal, lawful conduct. This was an old problem. Long before the recent wave of Middle East refugees, France was home to more than five million Muslims, making it the largest Islamic community in Europe. Most of their families had originally lived in the French colonies in North Africa and began coming to France when the colonies became independent, starting in the 1960s. Instead of assimilating into French society, the children of the North African immigrants became even more culturally isolated. They were segregated into suburban neighborhoods which evolved into crime-ridden slums.
FRENCH MUSLIM ANTI-SEMITISM EXPLODES
Until relatively recently, most French Muslim were not religious. A 2011 opinion poll found that only 40% called themselves “observant Muslims” and only 25% attended Friday prayers. However, they strongly identify with the worldwide Muslim culture. That led to an increasing number of anti-Semitic attacks by Muslim gangs on Jews who lived in the same French neighborhoods. The streets in those areas became so dangerous that local police were afraid to conduct investigations or try to make arrests in response to reports of the attacks filed by the Jewish victims.
By 2005, the lawlessness resulted in a wave of rioting and car burnings across France by gangs of mostly Muslim young people. While Jews were often targeted, no civilians were safe on the streets of France’s working-class neighborhoods.
French officials responded by making superficial efforts to reach out to Muslims to encourage a greater sense of French cultural identity, but the underlying social currents of segregation from the rest of French society remained. As a result, France was much less welcoming to the recent wave of new immigrants, being well aware of the long-term problems they were likely to create. Merkel’s government largely ignored the dangers that the recent French experience with its immigrant population had revealed.
One of Merkel’s arguments to justify her invitation to the immigrants was the need to bolster Germany’s aging work force to maintain its economic vitality. But it soon became apparent that more than a few of the newly arrived migrants had no interest in becoming productive workers. They became a disruptive force, committing violent crimes, becoming a menace to German society and an embarrassment to Merkel’s government.
ALIENATION LED TO TERRORIST INDOCTRINATION
If anything, the alienation of the Muslims immigrants who were attracted to Germany was even more severe than those who had come to France a generation or two earlier. A large proportion of the most recent wave of Muslim immigrants consisted of unattached young males who were driven from their home countries by war. Upon their arrival in Europe, they experienced the very different norms of Western society for the first time, and many behaved badly.
This was taking place at the same time that attacks by home-grown terrorists were becoming a serious problem, particularly in France and Belgium. The deadly mass attack on the Charlie Hebdo editorial office and the Hypercasher kosher supermarket in Porte de Vincennes, a Jewish-populated neighborhood in Paris, were carried out in January 2015 by Muslim men who had been raised in Paris and radicalized by Islamic recruiters while serving time in French prisons for committing petty crimes. The Yemen-based AQAP al-Qaeda group claimed responsibility for directing the coordinated assaults. In November of that year, an ISIS-led cell made up of French and Belgian raised Muslims killed 130 civilians and wounded hundreds more in a coordinated attack on six locations in central Paris and one of its suburbs, including a music concert at the Bataclan theater and the Stade de France soccer stadium.
In March of 2016, another ISIS-inspired cell consisting of Muslims raised and living in the Molenbeek neighborhood Brussels carried out coordinated attacks on the local airport and a subway station killing 32 civilians. Another 45 people were killed in an ISIS attack on the airport in Istanbul, Turkey, in June. A month later, 86 people were killed by a lone terrorist driving a truck into people on a promenade during a Bastille Day celebration in Nice, France. These were in addition to more than a dozen separate attacks during the period which inflicted smaller numbers of casualties by ISIS-inspired home-grown terrorists in France, Germany, Belgium, Turkey and Moscow.
RECOGNITION AS A SECURITY THREAT
For this reason, the mostly Muslim refugees were seen as a security threat to European countries, potentially adding to the ranks of home-grown Islamic terrorists who had emerged due to the failure of Western European societies to assimilate previous waves of working class Muslim immigrants. The economically disadvantaged descendants of those immigrants felt increasingly frustrated and alienated from the surrounding European societies. They became easy prey for recruitment and direction by Islamic terrorist groups such as ISIS and al-Qaeda.
Several European countries were inundated by the wave of refugees. Most eventually responded by sealing their open internal borders connecting to other EU countries and enforcing much stricter requirements on those seeking asylum. Many immigrants were sent back to their countries of origin when they could not prove that they truly were refugees who fled their homes to save their lives, rather than in search of a higher standard of living.
The immigrants came from more than 20 countries, but refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq made up roughly half of them. Others were attracted from as far away as Mali and Bangladesh. More than two and a half million refugees sought asylum across the EU in 2015 and 2016. More than 1.2 million of them sought asylum during that time in Germany.
The wave of immigration peaked at the end of 2016, as ISIS was being put on the defensive by the U.S.-led coalition, and the civil war in Syria began to wind down. By then, huge numbers of immigrants had already made their way to their European destinations. Crime statistics in Germany and other countries across Europe which accepted large numbers of refugees soared, as government officials tried unsuccessfully to suppress the inevitable backlash from local voters.
THE VOTER BACKLASH
That voter backlash was already a serious political problem in France and other European countries before the immigration flow started to turn into a tidal wave in late 2014. British voters were concerned by the large number of Muslim immigrants trying to sneak into Britain through the cross-English Channel rail tunnel from France. The British also resented pressure from EU authorities in Brussels to accept more refugees. The anti-refugee sentiment was a significant factor in the surprising outcome of the Brexit vote in the summer of 2016, which mandated the British government to start the long and complex process of leaving the EU.
The revolt by British voters was seen by EU supporters as a dangerous precedent which other unhappy member countries might follow if efforts were not made to reform some of the EU’s most glaring problems and inequalities which had come to the surface.
WHY THE EU NEEDS MERKEL’S LEADERSHIP TO MAKE CHANGES
The EU requires a unanimous consensus of all 28 members to make any significant policy changes. Only a strong and widely recognized leader like Merkel has the prestige and authority to force politically painful changes on the EU’s structure.
In addition, only Germany has the economic resources available that could entice reluctant EU members to go along with necessary changes that would otherwise be to their detriment. Merkel’s weak performance in the September election and her subsequent inability to form a viable governing coalition was deeply unsettling to other EU leaders, like French President Emmanuel Macron, who recognize the urgent need to repair the EU’s most glaring faults.
Advocates for major EU changes had not only been counting on Merkel’s prestige and political leadership, but also her ability to deploy Germany’s economic resources to pay for them. If Merkel’s position as Chancellor is weakened by being forced to form a minority government which would be politically dependent upon the support of opposition parties, she would lose her power to impose her will on a Germany which has already grown tired of financing its weaker EU partners.
Being forced to call for a new German election could be even worse. It would be seen as an admission by Merkel that she is no longer in political control of the country. That is no doubt why, after publicly considering that option, she has now firmly rejected it.
MERKEL GETS A SECOND CHANCE
Merkel’s ability to maintain the vast political power she has wielded over Germany and the EU during the past 12 years depends upon her ability to persuade her reluctant former coalition partner, the center-left SPD, to join with her once again, even though doing so would risk further alienating the SPD’s liberal voters. The leader of the SPD, Martin Schulz, was very reluctant to backtrack on his original decision to keep his party in the opposition. He agreed to reconsider only after being heavily pressured by Germany’s president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, for the sake of the stability of Germany’s government and to maintain its leadership position in the EU and the Western world.
Schulz has made it clear that SPD retains the option to decline Merkel’s invitation to join her next government, and he has promised to make acceptance of that invitation dependent upon its approval in a referendum by SPD members and activists.
The relationship between the two coalition partners has not always been amicable, and many SPD activists are extremely wary of entering into another partnership with Merkel.
Even before the new coalition talks started this this week, there was a public clash between Barbara Hendricks, the SPD’s interim environmental minister and Christian Schmidt, the interim agricultural minister from Merkel’s party. Hendricks was infuriated when Schmidt, ignoring her protests, voted in an EU committee to permit the continued use of glyphosate, an agricultural herbicide (weedkiller) which is suspected of causing cancer. Merkel later criticized Schmidt’s action as “not in accordance with the instructions that the government had worked out,” but the damage had been done. The incident added further to the distrust of Merkel by the SPD’s rank and file. It also increases the pressure on Schulz to get significant concessions for his party’s liberal agenda from Merkel before agreeing to enter another coalition with her.
The coalition negotiations will be a high stakes political poker game with the SPD holding the high cards. They will be doubly difficult because the postwar German government has never had to deal with such a political impasse before. In addition, German leaders are painfully aware of their country’s tragic post-World War I history, when the badly divided and politically paralyzed Weimar Republic was ultimately taken over by a minority Nazi government.
BUSINESS AS USUAL, ALMOST
In the meantime, under the usual parliamentary rules, Merkel remains in charge of a caretaker government that can continue to do business as usual as long as it doesn’t involve any new policies that would be politically controversial. She has said that during this interim period, she will leave the ministers of her former government in place, including those from the SPD, until a new governing coalition is formed.
Germany itself seems stable, but the EU is not. It must negotiate the terms with British leaders for the Brexit, with a hard deadline for agreement, while considering the internal reforms that are necessary to keep other disaffected EU members from following Britain’s lead.
GERMAN VOTERS TOOK THEIR REVENGE
The strong backlash to Merkel’s liberal immigration policy has led the German government to respond by putting in place better screening procedures for new arrivals and stronger efforts to make sure they obey Germany’s laws.
However, Merkel’s stubborn refusal to stop the flow of refugees or admit that her original open invitation to immigrants was a mistake has alienated many working-class German voters. In September, they took out their frustrations and fears not only on Merkel’s center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) political party but also on her then-coalition partner, the SPD.
The CDU and its conservative Bavarian political partner, the CSU, scored just 33% of the popular vote in the September election, their worst showing since West Germany started voting in 1949. The SPD, which has been a fixture in German politics for a century, got just 20.5% of the vote. It paid a heavy price for having been Merkel’s coalition partner over the past four years. Combined, the partners attracted just 53.5% of the popular vote, a drop of more than 10 points from their showing in the last German national election in 2013.
DISRUPTING THE GERMAN POLITICAL PARTY SYSTEM
Equally disturbing, most of their lost votes did not go to the other two mainstream German political parties, the liberal Greens and the business-oriented Free Democrats (FDP). Instead, alienated voters gave their support to two small parties at the extremes of the German political spectrum, the Communists and the openly anti-immigration far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD). The AfD won 12.6% of the popular vote, enough to qualify for a faction in the Bundestag (German parliament) for the first time in its history.
Combined, the two extreme parties commanded about 25% of the popular vote. Merkel’s faction lost 65 seats and the SPD lost 40 seats, while the AfD won 94 seats in the 593-seat Bundestag, enough to make it extremely difficult for Merkel to form a new majority governing coalition without SPD’s participation.
Some were not surprised that the FDP decided to walk out of Merkel’s coalition talks with them and the Green party. The last time the FDP became a coalition partner with Merkel, the party was punished by the voters. It was virtually wiped out in the 2013 election, and failed to meet the 5% minimum of the vote necessary to qualify for a delegation in the Bundestag. But running as an opposition party share in the September election, on an anti-immigration platform, the FDP emerged in fourth place with 10.7% of the vote and 80 seats in the Bundestag.
MERKEL REFUSES TO ADMIT HER MISTAKE
Immigration policy remained an issue in her failed coalition talks with the Greens and FDP. In those negotiations, Merkel was forced to scale back her open border policy. Her new goal is to cap the number of new immigrants entering Germany to 200,000 a year, along with other limitations. The center-right FDP considers that figure to be still too high, but Merkel’s potential liberal coalition partners feel that her latest immigration proposal is too restrictive.
Merkel refuses to admit that her original immigration policy was an error, and insists upon Germany continuing to accept new immigrants, albeit in smaller numbers. FDP, whose conservative policies are otherwise similar to Merkel’s, saw immigration as one of the few areas in which it could compete successfully with her from the right for conservative votes. Last week, FDP’s leader, Mr. Lindner, decided to remain in the opposition in order to retain his party’s popular, independent stand on the issue.
Until Schulz, the leader of SPD, announced a potential change of heart, Merkel was still in search of a new base for her political power. With SPD entering the coalition negotiations, she now has more options, but she is still dealing from a much weaker position than before the September 24 election, leaving her ability to force the major changes that she and Macron want to make in the EU very much in doubt.
Until recently, Merkel’s control over German national politics was nearly total. Over the past dozen years, she has systematically eliminated any potential rival within her party while refusing to groom a successor.
Despite her current coalition-forming problems and her weak showing in the September election, Merkel seems certain to remain prime minister in the short term. How much political and diplomatic power she will be able to wield remains in doubt.
A WORLDWIDE POLITICAL WAVE
The election also demonstrated that even German voters, long known for their support of the political establishment, are not immune to the wave of nationalist, anti-immigrant sentiment which has swept the Western world, beginning with the stunning upset victory of Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton a year ago.
The rise of extreme right-wing parties on the strength of growing anti-immigration sentiment across Europe has deeply worried liberal policymakers around the world who have long endorsed the idea of the EU evolving into a powerful central government for Europe. Those who believe that the EU is already too powerful and divorced from the will of the people it governs say that the problems created by the wave of immigrants whom Merkel irresponsibly invited into Europe is a perfect example of the gap between impractical liberal-utopian ideals and the harsh realities of the real world which the leaders of nations must recognize as they are, not as they wish them to be.
In October, Austrians elected a right-wing government led by Sebastion Kurz, who is just 31 years-old. He won power for his formerly center-right People’s Party by appropriating the radical anti-immigration positions of the far-right Freedom Party, which some have called neo-fascist.
In March elections in the Netherlands, the ultra-conservative PVV party of Geert Wilders, the populist who has sometimes been called the “Dutch Donald Trump,” was narrowly defeated by the moderately conservative VVD party of the incumbent prime minister, Mark Rutte, but only after he adopted many of the anti-immigration positions of his opponent.
In April, French voters rejected the leaders of its traditional major parties, creating a May runoff between newcomer Macron, who had just founded his own new populist party/political movement, and Marine LePen, head of the National Front, an extreme right wing/anti-immigration party that was founded by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, a notorious and outspoken fascist and anti-Semite. Macron beat LePen soundly by a 66%-34% margin in the runoff, but a major part of his platform was based on the premise that, with Merkel’s help, he would be able to fix many of the problems of the EU by giving it more central authority and spending power.
TIME RUNNING OUT TO FIX THE EU’S PROBLEMS
If Merkel is unable to maintain her political authority as the unquestioned leader of the German government, she will be unable to supply Macron with the support he will need to implement his proposed changes to the EU over the objections of other member states.
Serious discussions on long overdue changes to fixing the shortcomings of the euro central currency, strengthening Europe’s long-under financed defenses and revamping its failed immigration and asylum policies have already been delayed to await the outcome of the French and German elections and the formation of Merkel’s new government. Now, her ability to guide those decisions has been thrown into serious doubt.
Not only has the immigration issue destabilized the traditional German political power structure, it is undermining voter support for liberal governments across Europe. It exposes the fallacy of the liberal beliefs of leaders like French President Macron who insists that only “a more integrated Europe” is the path to “real sovereignty,” and the antidote to nationalism, populism and Euroscepticism.
WOULD A SMALLER EU FUNCTION BETTER?
Other European leaders, especially those in the east of the continent, believe that only a smaller and more diverse European Union can lead the way to a more successful and harmonious future for the continent.
Not incidentally, flawed immigration policy was also the issue which sparked Donald Trump’s highly improbable rise to the presidency of the United States.
It has been a difficult couple of years for Merkel and other members of the elite cabal of political leaders in power since the collapse of the Soviet Union almost 30 years ago. Together, they have sought to force into being the utopian idea of a unified Europe. They also sought to govern the rest of the world by developing a global consensus of technocrats, the wealthy, the well-connected, and compliant government leaders. They have manipulated the Western-style democracies and international institutions such as the UN to dictate economic and political policies to the masses, while ignoring their needs and wishes and enjoying the fruits of their power.
THE SELF-DECEPTIONS OF THE LIBERAL ELITE
The members of this liberal elite had convinced themselves that they were acting for the greater good, protecting human rights and promoting global prosperity through free trade, while in fact they were exploiting the poor and the working class to enrich themselves and maintain the global status quo.
FDP legislator Alexander Graf Landsdorf has argued that Macron’s proposed centralized solutions to Europe’s problems would ultimately lead to a situation in which “no country would ever be responsible for getting its own house in order.”
Some liberal observers have held out hope that the rejection by European voters of the EU’s failed immigration policies will finally show members of elite governing class the error of their ways. But experience in the United States, with the failure of the GOP’s elite to respond to the grass roots demands of the Tea Party movement, argues otherwise.
When GOP leaders refused to listen, and the Republican candidates they elected to office in Washington cynically went back on their promises, the voters eventually got their revenge, and more than a measure of satisfaction, by electing Donald Trump as president.
That example should send a sobering message to the likes of Macron and Merkel. Voters will only put up with so much betrayal. The shocking outcome of the Brexit vote last year was strike one. The unexpected political quandary Angela Merkel now finds herself in is strike two. Time is fast running out for Europe’s leaders to recognize the real-world problems with the EU and fix them before European voters decide to deliver strike three.