7 Mar 2016

Angela Merkel: fiscal dominatrix and moral standard bearer

Less than a year ago Angela Merkel was the unassailable Queen of Europe. In the eyes of the world she had achieved something unique: she was both the fiscal dominatrix that kept Greece at heel and the moral standard bearer of the biggest refugee crisis in Europe since 1945, who shamed other European leaders for being less welcoming than the Germans.

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Saint Angela became Time Magazine’s person of the year. Her mantra was: “Wir schaffen das!” (“We can do this!”) The phrase was  uncharacteristically “can do-ish” for a typically cautious leader leading a country that rarely does American-style optimism. Things have changed. After welcoming 1.1 million migrants and refugees, more and more Germans are screaming: “Genug!” (“Enough!”)

Angela Merkel is on the defensive and it shows. At the last summit in Brussels, the one that dealt with British  exceptionalism, Frau Merkel was so invisible – apart from a brief glimpse at a local chip shop – one could have been excused for thinking she had gone into a witness protection programme. It seemed as if power had drained from her thanks to the toxic turn of the refugee and migrant crisis.

Today she is back in Brussels intent on doing a deal with the EU equivalent of the devil. Such is the urgency of the crisis that Turkey, a country whose human rights record has excluded it from seeking much-coveted EU membership, has now been cast as the saviour of the organisation that has traditionally shunned its overtures.

Germany is lavishing money, promises and respect on Turkey in the hope that Ankara will prevent tens of thousands of migrants and refugees from getting to the coast a few miles across he water from Greece. In other words Germany is rewarding Turkey to be better at confining people.

The timing couldn’t be more embarrassing. Turkey is not only engaged in a full-scale conflict with Kurdish extremists, it is also engaged in a full-scale conflict with its own democracy. A few days ago the leading opposition daily Zaman was closed down, the latest and most brazen assault in the government’s muzzling of the free press.

The Turkish prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu should have entered the conference building here with his head hung low. Instead he marched in demanding not only more cash than the 3 billion euros already offered by the EU, but also visa rights for the Schengen area, fast track membership of the EU and respect. As the prime minister put it, rather bluntly. “We are the indispensable nation of Europe!”

One European leader after another looked sickened as they had to admit that relations with Turkey were “complicated”. Their outrage was as solid as a fig leaf in late autumn. The Turks are flexing their diplomatic muscles like rarely before, because they can. Angela Merkel is heavily motivated to give the Turks their delight because she faces three key regional state elections next Sunday at which the anti- immigrant, increasingly xenophobic AfD (Alternative for Germany party) is expected to become the third most popular party, occupying seats in state assemblies for the first time.

The AfD is Germany’s offering to Europe’s hard right-wing populist backlash. It started life as a wonkish workshop of German economists who distrusted the euro. It has morphed into something much more sinister and popular, feeding off-anti immigration fears.

According to opinion polls, the party is at almost 20 per cent of support in the eastern state of Saxony Anhalt, home to no more than 4,000 refugees. But as history has taught us, you don’t need outsiders in your neighbourhood in order to have them.

In the worst case scenario, Angela Merkel’s legacy may well be that she opened the door to right-wing extremism in Germany, presided over the fraying of the EU, the end of the Schengen Agreement and did a deal with a country that thumbs its nose at Europe’s much vaunted values.

It’s not all her fault, of course. But as the most powerful leader in Europe, the buck stops with her more than anyone else.

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4 reader comments

  1. Alan says:

    A handful of self termed leaders believe they represent the population. Together with financial vultures they have sought to carve up the middle east for their own gain. The more arrogant like Turkey’s leader feel able to extort, given his peers criminal track record, he sees nothing wrong. The gang mentality of so called leaders continues to be dressed up as political dialogue. Ms Merkel’s legacy, if any will be as so many other politicians, never represented their own people.

  2. anon says:

    Dear Mr Frei

    hope ok to say this but excellent analysis as always, there is always the question; why? perhaps Germany seems to act in extremes? worst case /best scenario? the EU breaks up, in order to fix it and IS is destroyed as should have happened 2 years ago, with Nato working fully with Russia – who thankfully got involved. This could be done in one week, think I read the US Military thought two weeks, but that was some time ago,

    best wishes

  3. Alex says:

    I don’t understand this sentence at all:
    ‘But as history has taught us, you don’t need outsiders in your neighbourhood in order to have them.’
    … in order to have what?
    Also am wondering specifically what events of history this refers to; extremely vague.
    Your metaphors are very creative though, crack on!

  4. Andrew Dundas says:

    Why not care for these refugees in Greece? Greeks badly need a free economic stimulus, and €3,000 millions would be a start. Somewhere in Northern Greece might be a good place to build temporary camps. NATO could ferry them there.

    Holding and verifying migrants and refugees in Greece may help to get around some of the human rights issues too. And avoid accepting Turkey’s predatory offer.

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