Merkel Loses Cool in China Before Crisis Talks With Coalition

  • Chancellor returning to Berlin for round of emergency meetings
  • Merkel confronts increasing isolation over her refugee stance

Angela Merkel lost her customary cool Friday as she responded curtly to a question about a party revolt over her handling of the country’s spiraling refugee crisis.

The German chancellor cut short a press briefing to wrap up her two-day trip to China after a reporter departed from the topic at hand, asking whether the time 5,000 miles away from Berlin had invigorated Merkel to return to the turmoil at home.

“This is an important trip, but the things at home are just as important,” Merkel responded before turning away from the cameras after a school visit in a village outside the eastern Chinese city of Hefei. She skipped an originally planned second question.

The moment of pique from the normally unruffled chancellor underscores the escalating political crisis as Merkel returns to Berlin for a series of emergency meetings this weekend to quell unrest over her open-door refugee policy. With the influx expected to reach almost a million this year, Bavarian Premier Horst Seehofer, a key coalition ally, has demanded that she stem the flow, threatening to take action himself if she doesn’t meet his Nov. 1 deadline.

Merkel meets with Seehofer, the chairman of the Bavarian Christian Social Union, the sister party to Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, on Saturday. The two then plan to meet with Social Democratic leader Sigmar Gabriel, a coalition partner who opposes caps on refugees, on Sunday.

Creeping Isolation

Even as she faces accusations from party allies that her policies have triggered an unsustainable wave of migrants, Merkel is in no immediate political danger from lawmakers who don’t have any appetite to topple her and seek a successor. Still, the chancellor faces creeping isolation as a public initially lining up to welcome refugees begins to fret over the ever-mounting number of newcomers.

As a “super incumbent,” Merkel will be able to parry threats coming from the CSU and emerging from within her party, according to Andrea Roemmele, a political scientist at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin.

“What she cannot lose is public support,” Roemmele said. “That is something she has to really be careful about and start worrying about -- and she’s not doing enough to keep that public support."

Popularity Hit

Polls show Merkel taking a hit. Support for her CDU-led bloc dropped two points to 36 percent this week, down from an August peak of 43 percent, according to a weekly poll carried out by Forsa.

While rumblings have been more muted from within the CDU, her chief critic has been Seehofer, whose state has been inundated by thousands of refugees pouring over the border from Austria. He said his government would take unspecified action if Merkel’s government didn’t meet his demands to curb the number of migrants by Sunday, while Merkel has rejected caps on asylum seekers.

Gabriel, Merkel’s vice chancellor, has turned on both, saying the Berlin-Munich quarrel was making the crisis worse.

“This type of mutual intimidation and abuse is unworthy and simply irresponsible,” Gabriel told Spiegel Online.

Squabbling

Merkel has sought to sidestep the domestic squabbling, focusing on the geopolitical dimension of the region’s biggest refugee crisis since World War II, which has been compounded by the civil war in Syria and exposed the 28-member European Union’s inability to settle on a strategy for responding to it.

After wading into an election campaign in Turkey this month to seek help in stemming the flow of migrants into the EU, Merkel this week even courted China’s leaders for assistance.

“We are deeply concerned about the refugee crisis currently taking place in Europe and particularly in Germany,” Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said in Beijing at a joint news conference with Merkel on Thursday. “We will continue to make our constructive contribution to the solution of the Syrian conflict.”

The global view will have to return to local politics as Merkel’s party gears up for three state elections next March, a precursor to 2017 national elections and a possible bid for a fourth term for the chancellor. For that, she’ll have to engage with voters whose welcome is wearing thin.

An illustration of Merkel’s awareness of the potential isolation came at a town-hall event this week in the Bavarian city of Nuremberg. As she fielded questions on education, a man broke off topic to say that although he was “never a friend” of her policies, Merkel’s stance on refugees was “simply all good” -- and the same support came from a friend of his.

“Well that makes three of us,” Merkel responded.

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