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The Merkel Era Is Far From Over

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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Suggestions that the Angela Merkel era may be ending have surfaced in the mainstream in recent weeks. Partly, this is because some members of the German chancellor's own party are panicking about her handling of the refugee influx. Merkel is not about to resign or be toppled, however: She's leading an existential battle between the kind of European future she represents and the one envisaged by Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary.

Merkel is clearly under stress before the talks this weekend with Horst Seehofer, the prime minister of Bavaria and leader of the CSU, the sister party of Merkel's CDU in Bavaria. Seehofer embodies the domestic challenge to Merkel, and he presented her with an ultimatum this week: Do something about the refugee influx by Halloween or he would "consider what options for action we have." The majority of the 10,000 immigrants a day the federal states have registered in September and October came across the Austrian border. Seehofer wants Merkel to get Austria to stem the flow. 

QuickTake Europe's Refugee Crisis

Seehofer's concern is understandable: Bavaria is where most new immigrants begin their new lives in Germany, and the state's citizens get a close-up look at the chaos that precedes the more or less orderly distribution of the refugees throughout Germany. A poll conducted earlier this month showed that two-thirds of Bavarians want the refugee influx curbed. 

Merkel has no reason to panic, however. The CDU's popularity nationwide has slipped -- almost certainly because of the migration issue, which has benefited only one party,  Alternative fuer Deutschland, a Euroskeptic, anti-immigrant party. The 35 percent to 39 percent Merkel's party gets in polls is no disaster. Although it won 41.5 percent in parliamentary election two years ago, it's had lower ratings many times during Merkel's 10 years in office:

The immigration crisis has been described as Merkel's "Schroeder moment": Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, her predecessor, lost his job after instituting unpopular economic reforms. But when he was forced to step down, in 2005, his SPD party was less  popular than CDU. Now, the gap between CDU and SPD is wide, and the SPD's leader, Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel, supports Merkel's stance on refugees. It's hard to see how this crisis could break up the governing coalition: Alternative fuer Deutschland has only 5 percent to 6 percent support and no allies among other parties.

The panic among some CDU/CSU members reflects their own preference for a tighter immigration policy, not any imminent danger to the party's grip on Germany. Merkel, despite her reputation for consensus and compromise, has been efficient in eliminating competition both within her party -- there are no convincing rivals -- and outside it.

In her talks with concerned allies, Merkel probably will stress that they have nothing to worry about. She should also urge mainstream German parties to rally behind her in the bigger battle she's waging outside Germany, which will define the nation's position in the European Union and perhaps even the future of centrist politics in the EU.

Her biggest challenge comes from Orban, the continent's most determined wall-builder and refugee-basher. On Friday, he railed against plans to distribute refugees across Europe according to a quota system. "Who voted for admitting millions of people who entered illegally, and distributing them among EU member states?" he said on Hungarian public radio. "What's happening lacks democratic foundations."

Merkel has been accused of trampling democracy in the past --  by Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras of Greece, as much an exemplar of the left as Orban is of the nationalist right-wing. Merkel has handled the threat from the left with her usual graceless but effective earnestness. Tsipras has accepted an EU-imposed economic plan, and leftist parties throughout Europe pose no threat of a Greek-style anti-austerity insurgency. Now, the threat is from nativist populists from France to Sweden. 

The foremost challenge is in Eastern Europe. Poland just elected an anti-immigrant government. Transit countries on the refugees' northward path are wondering whether they shouldn't do more to keep migrants out. Prime Minister Miro Cerar of Slovenia said this week that unless a pan-European plan to deal with the influx begins to work soon, his country will move to protect its borders. 

If Germany fails to get other European countries to sign up to a common plan for dealing with asylum seekers, it will be a victory for right-wingers across the continent, a blow to German leadership in Europe and to the dominance of centrists in EU politics. If Merkel gave in to calls for restricting the flow, the outcome wouldn't be much different. Merkel and the rest of the German establishment cannot afford to retreat or surrender.

Merkel may pay for this later, but it falls to her to define the direction for the EU.

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:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net