Photographer: JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP/Getty Images

Angela Merkel Is Feeling the Strain Over Migrants

  • Turkey is chancellor's main focus as Greece also turns ally
  • Refugee decisions put off until March summit amid EU discord

The strain is starting to tell on Angela Merkel.

Left to climb the solitary path she’s chosen during Europe’s refugee crisis, the German chancellor mocked fellow European leaders this week for refusing to come to her aid by stalling a resettlement plan. At a private meal last month with German newspaper executives critical of her stance, she proudly served up Arab food and then bristled at a guest’s joke that the fish must have been caught by a refugee, according to a person with knowledge of the incident.

After a decade at the helm of Europe’s dominant country, the chancellor best known for weighing her actions and words is getting testy as she struggles to win allies to help ease the refugee burden on Germany and ensure her own political survival. The upshot is she’s rarely looked so lonely as she returns to Brussels for a European Union summit Thursday.

“It’s pretty tough for Merkel at the EU level, especially after France made it clear that it won’t take in any more refugees,” Jan Kallmorgen, a partner at political consultancy Interel in Berlin, said in an interview. “Even if a small group of EU countries agrees on a resettlement mechanism, Germany will have to accept the bulk of those refugees.”

Whereas until last year she could rely on France and Poland for backing, she’s now forced to test new allegiances to counter the greatest threat to her chancellorship. And with Britain’s future in the EU topping the summit agenda, the chancellor is adjusting her tactics to delay a European showdown until after three German state elections in March.

Plan A

While Merkel recognizes that Germany can’t take in another 1 million asylum seekers as it did last year, she sees no alternative to seeking an international solution that avoids border closures within the EU, according to a second person familiar with her thinking. That means no Plan B, with a tangible reduction in arrivals needed before winter gives way to spring, the person said.

QuickTake Europe's Refugee Crisis

Failure to make progress on refugees “could exacerbate political tensions in the EU to an extent that such tensions may become relevant for markets,” said Holger Schmieding, chief economist at Berenberg Bank. “We need to watch the political risks more closely than the economic data in Europe this year.”

Her approach puts Merkel at the mercy of leaders such as Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose airstrikes in support of President Bashar al-Assad are increasing the refugee exodus from Syria. It’s also prompted an unlikely alliance with Turkey, whose EU membership bid Merkel opposed and in whose hands she now places most trust to curb the flow of people across the Aegean to Greece and north to Germany.

Greek Ties

In a further sign of Merkel’s shifting alliances, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras is now the leader with the greatest interest in helping to halt the arrivals. In the face of near universal EU opposition, Merkel insists that Greece remain in Europe’s passport-free travel zone known as the Schengen area, according to two people with knowledge of her strategy. Her reasoning echoes that for keeping Greece in the euro during the debt crisis: those countries that want to seal the border to migrants with Greece on the outside underestimate the potential fallout, since undermining Schengen carries unpredictable risks for Europe, one of the people said.

Where once Merkel would hold bilateral meetings with her French counterpart at summits, this time she had been due to meet with Tsipras and Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, until the latter postponed his trip to Brussels following a deadly bomb attack in Ankara late on Wednesday. Merkel was quick to offer her condolences.

On a visit to Berlin in January, Davutoglu noted that the “global agenda is shifting very quickly,” adding that “in this phase, German-Turkish relations with a positive agenda are extremely important.”

France’s refusal to back Merkel’s migrant stance underscores the hostility toward her policy even among long-standing German allies, a year after she and French President Francois Hollande jointly brokered a peace plan for eastern Ukraine with Putin. Last week, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls took time out from a conference in Munich to visit a refugee camp in Bavaria, where opposition to Merkel’s policy runs high, and told French reporters: “Europe can’t take in any more refugees.”

As EU governments gird for a spring surge of migrants, Austria said Tuesday it will step up controls on the borders with Italy and Slovenia. In the EU’s east, Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia demanded action Monday to close Greece’s northern borders to halt the flow of Syrian refugees.

State Votes

Faced with opposition across Europe, Merkel said she’ll put aside a stalled EU resettlement plan in Brussels and instead ask her fellow leaders to back her efforts to enlist Turkey. That also allows her to put off potentially acrimonious talks with her EU peers on easing the refugee burden on Germany until the next EU summit on March 17-18, the week after states with a fifth of Germany’s electorate go to the polls.

While Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union has a chance to win the contests in Baden-Wuerttemberg, Rhineland-Palatinate and Saxony-Anhalt, a strong showing by the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany party, or AfD, would risk increasing opposition to her open-door policy within her party.

While that stance wins praise from supporters such as actor George Clooney and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, it doesn’t help Merkel much at home. Her approval rating fell to the lowest in 4 1/2 years this month as 81 percent of voters said her government doesn’t have the refugee crisis under control, according to Infratest Dimap polling.

The array of variables and actors she’s faced with makes the refugee influx a far more complex problem than the euro crisis, a challenge that one Chancellery aide compared to juggling with 500 balls at once. Merkel’s public response is to plead for patience.

“I’m deeply convinced that the course I have taken is the right one for our country and for Europe, and that it will succeed step by step,” she said in an interview with Stuttgarter Zeitung newspaper published Monday. “We have a long road ahead of us.”