Angela Merkel Isn't Backing Down
Many people seem to expect Chancellor Angela Merkel to apologize. Her party, the Christian Democratic Union, keeps underperforming in regional elections. Most recently, the CDU took a drubbing in parliamentary elections in Berlin on Sept. 18. The reason: the backlash against the kindness Merkel showed toward refugees last year.
There have been five defeats this year, in every state that held elections. The party's biggest loss -- a 12 percentage-point decline from the 2011 result -- was in Baden-Wuerttemberg, the wealthy southwestern state that received the most asylum applications this year -- more than 75,000. In Berlin, the CDU lost 5.8 percentage points, but the result destroyed the CDU-Social Democrat coalition that governed the city-state: It no longer has a majority in the city council, and the Social Democrats, who won a plurality, must now look for a different configuration, possibly with different partners.
Merkel expressed disappointment after each of the failures, but she never voiced regret about her decision to let in more than 1 million refugees. Even so, many publications -- all English-language ones -- jumped the gun after Merkel's speech in Berlin on Sept. 19, with headlines about a "mea culpa" or articles asserting that she now wished to "turn back the clock on refugee policy." And yet Merkel has not apologized.
"If I could, I would go back in time many, many years," she told the post-election press conference, " so I could better prepare myself, with the entire government and everyone responsible, to handle the situation that we faced unprepared in the late summer of 2015." She added that "no one, myself included, wants a repeat of the situation" and lamented that her famous phrase about the refugee wave -- "Wir schaffen das," or "we can handle it" -- has turned into an empty formula that "makes many people feel provoked, though I meant it to be inspiring."
Reading this as an apology is wishful thinking. She only has admitted to mistakes in execution and communication. Indeed, the refugee crisis wasn't handled smoothly by the unusually high standards of German bureaucracy: Hundreds of thousands of asylum applications clogged up the system, there were mob scenes at registration centers, spreading the refugees throughout the country was a logistical nightmare and government communication was often panicky. Now, most of the problems have been fixed, with increased staffing for the migration service and streamlined procedures drawn up with help from management consultants, including McKinsey (though the parliamentary opposition considers their services overly expensive). Besides, by spearheading a migrant return deal between the European Union and Turkey, Merkel has drastically reduced inflows. In July, the parliament passed a groundbreaking refugee integration law that lays out a path for those who plan to stay in Germany: They are required to learn German but also allowed to take jobs previously reserved for EU citizens.
The attacks on women in Cologne on New Year's Eve, which in some cases were the work of new arrivals, have led the police to tighten control, and there have been no similar disturbances since. A recent clash between refugees and right-wingers in the eastern town of Bautzen was handled efficiently, with no serious injuries. Recent immigrants carried out several terror attacks this year, but again, the police were on top of things every time, and the casualty count was significantly lower than in recent attacks in France and Belgium.
All in all, Merkel's government, legislators and the German bureaucratic and law-enforcement machinery have proved this year that, indeed, Germany can handle it. "I have a feeling," Merkel said at the news conference, "that we have come out of this phase better than we were going into it. Germany will not change its foundations. Who, if not we, should be able to make something good out of this experience."
This persistence in the face of continuing defeats takes stubbornness and courage. Merkel's allies -- notably Horst Seehofer, leader of the CDU's Bavarian sister party, who has long opposed her refugee policy -- are worried about the party's electoral prospects. One of the chancellor's strongest qualities, however, is her ability to stay calm and wait out storms. The next federal election is not until September 2017. There will be three more regional elections before then, with the first in March. There's plenty of time for Merkel to show that the crisis is being handled successfully and that past mistakes have been corrected. Even though the CDU's popularity has dropped to about 30 percent -- from 41.5 percent in the 2013 elections -- it is still by far the strongest party in Germany, so Merkel's stoicism is grounded in optimism.
Her desire to correct errors and communicate better suggests that she will probably run for a fourth term as chancellor. Even if some believe she has dug a hole for herself and the CDU, she cannot leave the party to dig out of it without her.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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