But what will her legacy be?

Photographer: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

The Refugee Crisis Is Changing Angela Merkel

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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Yesterday's meeting between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the prime ministers of German states yielded an important number. Every incoming asylum seeker will cost the federal government 670 euros per month ($747) plus a further 500 million euros for housing. Amazingly, the huge outlay is not testing Merkel's resolve to accept the refugees or her Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble's determination to balance the budget without new debt. But the chancellor is still going out on a limb: if Germans tire of the influx of Syrians and Iraqis, she will be held responsible.

QuickTake Europe's Refugee Crisis

Hungary recently allocated an additional 30 billion forints ($106 million) "to assist the handling of the migrant crisis." That's just 0.07 percent of Hungary's 2014 gross domestic product, and still Prime Minister Viktor Orban is moaning about the unbearable burden of the asylum seekers, who don't even want to stay in his country. At the meeting yesterday, Merkel promised the German states an extra 3.7 billion euros ($4.2 billion) this year -- that's 0.1 percent of GDP, and you won't hear Merkel complain even though many of the refugees are here to stay and the outlays will increase next year as more people arrive.

Nor will you see German police raining batons on the heads of people trying to climb a fence or tear-gassing a crowd that includes children, the way Hungary's cops have. Asylum seekers are put on trains and buses and spread more or less evenly throughout Germany. Berlin, the biggest city, has received up to 30,000 of them this year, 9,000 in the last three weeks alone. Germany as a whole, according to the government office for migration, has seen an influx of 257,000 asylum seekers from January through August. To be sure, many of these people are swiftly sent back. For example, out of the almost 34,000 residents of Kosovo who arrived this year, only seven have received asylum and more than 25,000 have already had their applications rejected.

Yet 39,000 of the 56,000 Syrians and 9,000 of 14,000 Iraqis have already been granted asylum, and the rest probably will too. No other European country processes this many applications this fast or accepts so many refugees. Taking them in is a huge operation that strains the resources of Deutsche Bahn, the state railroad company that provides the transportation, police and immigration officials. Last week, Manfred Schmidt, who ran the government immigration agency, resigned after being criticized for inordinately long processing times: The agency does have a sizable backlog because there are just too many people coming in. The government expects this year's tally to reach 800,000, but Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel has suggested it might be as many as a million.

No wonder the heads of local governments were worried that they might not have the necessary resources. Merkel's promise of additional funds -- she had pledged only 3  billion euros two weeks ago -- assuaged their fears and most of them left happy. That doesn't mean they won't grumble again if the influx increases, and the housing subsidy will almost certainly turn out to be insufficient because when winter comes, many of the refugees will have to be moved to warmer quarters. 

Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere on Thursday publicly criticized Merkel for her decision to let in the asylum seekers from Hungary. "Things got out of control" because of it, he said: "There were so many that no kind of order could be established." De Maiziere is a member of Merkel's Christian Democratic Union party, and she's also getting flak from her allies, the Christian Social Union in Bavaria, the state that serves as the entry point for the refugees and which is supposed to accept 150,000 of them this year.

There are signs, too, that Germans, who so far have mostly welcomed the refugees with sympathy and volunteer help, are getting worried about being overwhelmed. It's not just the interior minister who likes things to be a little more orderly. A poll commissioned by Focus magazine showed that 48 percent of Germans didn't support Merkel's "open doors"  policy and only 41 percent backed it. A significant minority, 33 percent, said Orban was right to try to keep the immigrants out. Merkel's support is even lower, and Orban's higher, in the eastern part of Germany, which is poorer and has a smaller immigrant population. Another recent poll showed that though most Germans believe accepting refugees is a moral imperative, the proportion of Germans who believe their arrival may be beneficial is dropping.

Despite reintroducing border controls with Austria to filter the inflow of refugees, Merkel is still intent on welcoming the newcomers to Germany. Once the initial sympathy fades, this may become a political problem for her. Immigration opponents often recall her statement from 2010 that Multikulti -- the derogatory German term for multiculturalism -- "had utterly failed," but what she actually meant was that Muslim immigrants needed to be integrated into German society, starting with schools, rather then left to live alongside Germans while following their home countries' customs. While she has never been anti-immigrant, she favors the assimilation of newcomers; with so many, that won't be easy given how overstretched the country's social services already are.

So helping to resolve the Syrian conflict which is the source of the refugee crisis is becoming a matter of political survival for the chancellor and her post-retirement legacy. In a speech on Wednesday, she called for cooperation with Russia, Iran, Turkey and even Syrian President Bashar al-Assad himself -- whom no one else in the West wants to engage --to end the war. Domestic pressures are pushing Merkel to be more active internationally, something that Germany has long been reluctant to do, and to push for the quickest peaceful solution possible. That's something for which the world may eventually thank the asylum seekers pouring into Germany, even if Germans don't.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Mark Gilbert at magilbert@bloomberg.net