Merkel Needs Europe's Help

Europe's problem.

Photographer: Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images

German Chancellor Angela Merkel suffered a humiliating electoral defeat in her home state on Sunday. The result, driven by a growing backlash against her policy on refugees, calls for hard thinking not just on her part but also from Germany's partners in the European Union.

Voters in rural Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, a tiny state of 1.6 million, didn't just defeat Merkel's Christian Democratic Union -- they crushed it. With just 19 percent of the vote, the CDU was pushed into third place behind the Social Democrats, Merkel's coalition partners, with 30 percent of the vote and the recently formed hard-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), with about 22 percent. National elections are due next year. The AfD may be about to establish itself as a powerful political force.

In most ways, Merkel has been a wise and effective leader of Germany and Europe. Nobody of similar stature has yet emerged to challenge her and her job is not on the line yet. Nonetheless, she miscalculated in her response to Europe's refugee crisis -- in effect, announcing that Germany would open its doors. The rest of the EU then compounded the error by failing to play its part in resolving the larger problem.

Angela Merkel

Merkel's position on refugees was both brave and righteous: She called for a strong humanitarian response to the flood of desperate migrants fleeing conflict in Syria, the Middle East and North Africa. Since early last year, Germany has taken in more than a million. "Wir schaffen das," Merkel said. "We can do this."

Public concern over the scale of the influx mounted after incidents such as the one in Cologne on New Year's Eve, when gangs of young immigrant men perpetrated dozens of sexual assaults near the city's main railway station. The impression formed was of a situation out of control.

Merkel certainly wasn't wrong to want to help, but she made too little of the difficulties to be faced in absorbing and assimilating so many, and dismissed popular concerns too blithely. She has enabled the AfD to argue that she is deaf to her own people: Without abandoning the decency and generosity she has stood for, she needs to refute that charge. She needs to make clear now that resources adequate to the task will be made available, and that there are indeed limits to what Germany can do.

Europe's Refugee Crisis

In doing this, however, support from other EU countries will be essential. The refugee crisis isn't Germany's problem alone. Managing it requires commitment and resources from across the union, and such support has been conspicuously absent. Merkel doubtless hoped to lead by example -- a noble sentiment, but it didn't work. Europe's other governments ought to step forward with moral and material support, with a new commitment to effective joint control of the EU's external borders, and above all with offers to accept their fair share of genuine refugees.

Surging support for the far right isn't just Germany's problem. In their own interests, and because it's the right thing to do, Europe's other governments need to come to Merkel's aid.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.