In summer 2015, German Chancellor Angela Merkel seemed invincible. The “Grexit”crisis was avoided, and Germany believed it had shown the other EU member states that the sheer power of its economy and size of its population equaled uncontested leadership.
Perhaps this caused Merkel’s overconfidence in her ability to solve the ongoing crisis that had been brewing for a while – an endless stream of refugees coming from the Middle East and Northern Africa, arriving on the Greek islands, and marching on through the Balkans to reach a safe haven in Central Europe. Thus, she proclaimed an overly optimistic “We can do it.”
Theoretically, she may have been right, granted the number of refugees would have been equally divided among the EU member states, with a fair allocation and distribution of public resources, a solid security infrastructure, and the political cooperation of the other countries. However, she was soon “mugged by reality” – the reality that the EU’s deepest flaw may be a lack of a common European identity, a lack of a shared belief in the common good of its institutions and a real representation of the people.
Even in the economically strong Germany, public distrust in the political system is higher than ever. The refugee crisis exacerbated the problem when the countries first affected – Greece, the Balkan states, Hungary and Austria – refused to play along with Merkel. But also in Germany itself, unrest stirred after 2016 New Year’s Eve when widespread attacks and sexual assaults in Cologne soured the mood of many Germans, reversing their welcoming attitudes and bringing on a year of deep insecurity, terrorist attacks, and systematic failures of its immigration infrastructure.
Two years later, Merkel is paying the price. Although her Conservative Party, CDU, managed to win the elections in September 2017, the result was dismal at best and betrayed the same crisis of representation common in many Western democracies these days. The other main party, the social democratic, SPD, refused to join another coalition government led by Merkel after having been burned twice in the process.
With a majority coalition out of the question, the only possible solution would have been a weak minority coalition with the liberal Democratic Party, FDP, or a so-called “Jamaica-coalition” with the additional support of the Green Party. However, such a coalition would have been a political experiment because the left-leaning Green Party is ideologically opposed to many of the goals of Merkel’s conservatives and the FDP’s neo-liberal agenda. But a look at the electoral map shows that large swaths of the country are not represented at all. The entire east of Germany – apart from Berlin – has turned to the right in the form of the new AfD Party (“Alternative for Germany”) that was created to fight for Germany’s interest in the Euro crisis but soon developed into a populist right-wing movement that put the refugee issue and fear of Islamization on its agenda.
An Assessment of the Mood
As someone who was born in East Germany and witnessed the rise of neo-Nazi violence after the Berlin Wall came down 28 years ago, I can testify that one should not underestimate the deeply felt anti-immigrant sentiment in that part of the country. Not everyone who voted for the populist right is harboring neo-Nazi views, of course, but on a local level the AfD enjoys the support of neo-Nazi groups, and some of its local politicians play actively to that base. Unlike other anti-immigrant populist movements in the West, Germany’s horrendous past does play a role here, and videos of leading AfD-politicians declaring Germany should finally get rid of its “shame” or pro-AfD-demonstrators shouting that opponents should be put on a “train to Auschwitz” cannot be ignored.
With the three parties heavily disagreeing on the handling of the immigration issue, the tortuous coalition-talks finally broke down around midnight on November 19, 2017. As of now, it appears that Christian Lindner, the ambitious leader of the FDP, intended the talks to fail by leaning to the right. While Merkel could still form a majority coalition with the SPD or a minority government with the FDP, new elections seem everyone’s preferred way to go. Elections could, however, strengthen the anti-immigrant AfD even more.
After the fruitless talks, it seems likely that Merkel’s days are numbered, and public distrust in the German political system is justified. Germany could become less stable.
Commentators have always been puzzled by Merkel’s ability to project calm and confidence in times of crisis, a trait that has now backfired badly during the past two years. Some believe that the mocking she received prior to her chancellorship as being too uncharismatic made her thick-skinned and tough; others suggest it was only her rock-solid stoicism and a strong German economy that created an otherwise unmerited confidence in her ability to rule. As the currently longest serving leader in the West with the fourth strongest economy in the world, she was a bulwark of an era now in doubt. Whether she’ll be able to return to be an example of stability is entirely unclear.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Israel Government Press office
Friends of Israel and the Jewish community of Germany find themselves between a rock and a hard place. The failure of a regulated immigration policy is severely troubling when some immigrant quarters of big cities like Berlin turned into no-go areas for Jews. At the same time, an anti-immigrant party like the AfD is too eager to rely on local citizens supportive of anti-Semitic no-go areas in the countryside. One of its leaders, Alexander Gauland, on the day after the September elections, questioned whether the German public was aware of the fact that German support for Israel’s right to exist would require Germany to intervene militarily on behalf of Israel. While he claimed that his party supported Israel, he publicly doubted his own willingness to do so.
Still, “the special relationship” between Germany and Israel is unlikely to change that easily. As one of the most stable and successful democracies of Europe, the current situation is not itself a crisis, but rather a test. Optimists even see a chance of a more vital democratic debate after years of complacency. I believe Germany will undoubtedly remain committed to Israel. More problematic may be the consequences for the European project whose structural problems are evident and where a weakening center will make it all the more fragile and less useful for a strong Western alliance.