Refugees: How Merkel Created Another Crisis and Divided Europe

At Russia Insider we have long been sayingthat Merkel is a weak and indecisive leader, not the strong and clever leader she is popularly supposed to be.

Recently we pointed out how her weakness and indecision had largely caused the two great crises affecting Europe – Greece and Ukraine.

Now we have a third crisis, the refugee crisis, which like the other two has “made by Merkel” stamped all over it.

This crisis has been months, if not years, in the making – as was obvious to anyone observing the situation in the Middle East – but Merkel did nothing to prevent it or prepare for it.

She did not push for a diplomatic solution of the Syrian war, which is the ultimate cause of the crisis.

As the UN refugee agencies complained that their funding to cope with the flood of refugees was running short, she did nothing to help them.

This passivity in the face of a festering crisis, seeking to sweep it under the carpet rather than do anything about it, is typical of Merkel.  She prefers to avoid the rows which action to avert a crisis might cause.  As a result the crisis is left to fester, until it hits with a vengeance.

When this crisis did finally strike this summer, her response was all of a piece.

She did not give the necessary political and financial support to the southern and eastern European states that were having to cope with the crisis.

She did not go to Ankara and Washington, to insist on action to deal with the underlying cause of the crisis, which would requires a settlement of the Syrian conflict.  Instead she left it to Putin to do all the heavy lifting, barely uttering a word of support.

Above all she did not point the finger at the Turkish government, which as is widely known has to a great extent caused the crisis, by driving out refugees and redirecting them towards Europe.

Such actions would have led to rows with the US and Turkey, which Merkel wants to avoid.

Instead she unilaterally and without consultation opened Germany’s borders to the refugee flood – in the process ignoring both EU law and the needs and concerns of her EU allies.

In doing so Merkel was looking to repair some of the damage to her reputation and to Germany’s image in the English speaking world done by her incompetent mishandling of the Greek crisis.

She did indeed briefly get a flood of laudatory pieces in the liberal media in Britain and the US (see for example this one by Jonathan Freedland in the Guardian).

The German public, which has to pay the bill,  was however less than pleased.

When it became clear Merkel’s announcement had provoked a flood of refugees – some say almost a million – to pour into Europe heading for Germany, German public opinion was horrified.

Faced with growing criticism in Germany, including from senior members of her own party, Merkel went into reverse.

Where she had suddenly and unilaterally opened Germany’s borders – creating the refugee flood – she equally suddenly and unilaterally closed them again – leaving thousands of refugees stranded in east European countries that don’t want them and where they don’t want to be.

Now she is demanding that other EU states accept fixed quotas of refugees, taking the strain from Germany, though it was her announcement that encouraged many of them to come to Europe in the first place.

Not surprisingly the rest of the EU is outraged.

Merkel’s response is exactly in line with what she always does when she is under pressure.

This is to take the line of least resistance by bullying the weakest party – in this case the EU’s small east European states – to do her bidding by taking quotas of refugees they don’t want so as to get herself out of trouble back home in Germany.

This despite the fact that, as she surely knows, this isn’t going to work because any refugees settled against their will in eastern Europe are going to take advantage of the EU’s open borders to head for Germany at the first opportunity.

As with the sanctions she imposed on Russia during the Ukrainian crisis, and the cut off of ECB financing to the Greek banks during the Greek crisis, Merkel has backed her bullying by getting the EU’s central institutions to act as her enforcer.

In this case this takes the form of a threat to cut off EU structural funding to the small and poor east European states if they don’t do as she tells them.

As with the sanctions on Russia and the cut off of financing to the Greek banks, this is probably illegal.  However, as in those cases, the EU bureaucracy tamely goes along.

Meanwhile, in order to deflect criticism in Germany away from Merkel, her media allies – as they always do when she is in trouble – have launched a vicious media campaign against the victims of her bullying.

During the Ukrainian crisis the target was Putin and Russia.  During the Greek crisis it was the Greeks and Syriza.  This time it is the people and governments of the smaller east European states, first and foremost Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

Not surprisingly the mood across Europe is grim.  The article in the Financial Times we publish below shows how angry many EU leaders now are.  The mere fact that such an article is being published at all in a newspaper that is normally highly supportive of Merkel is a sign of how bad the situation has become, and how difficult it is to conceal it.

Merkel has in fact now managed over the last year and a half to offend almost everyone.

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She upset the Russians by failing to carry through promises she made to them to settle the crisis in Ukraine, and by imposing sanctions on them.

She upset southern and eastern Europe by forcing them to impose sanctions on Russia, against their economic interests, in a cause (Ukraine) they don’t care about.

She shocked southern Europe, and the Anglo-Americans, by bullying Greece.

She has now upset her east European allies by forcing them to solve a refugee crisis she has largely created by bullying them to accept refugee quotas.

As the article in the Financial Times shows, her threat to cut off EU structural funding is being called “blackmail”, just as the cut-off of financing to the Greek banks was just a few months ago being called blackmail by the government of Greece.

This threat to cut off structural funding in in fact a threat which is always there and which has definitely been made before.

What is new and incendiary, and what makes it this time particularly humiliating, is that the threat has now been made public, exposing to east European publics the extent to which their governments depend on handouts from Berlin.

Meanwhile Merkel’s “holier than thou/Pastor’s daughter” pose, and her perennial (and untrue) boast to have a “scientific” approach to policy making, must be increasingly grating to those on the receiving end of her policies – not to mention the victims of her bullying.

What makes this crisis particularly dangerous for Merkel is that her anxiety to strut a good figure with opinion in the US and Britain caused her to forget opinion in Germany, which she appears to have taken for granted.

The result is that her ratings are now falling, with her own supporters in her own party for the first time publicly starting to question whether she has lost her touch.

The problems is that Merkel seems to be obsessed with avoiding the fate of her far more talented predecessor, Gerhard Schroder.

As Chancellor Schroder carried out significant economic reforms, which many credit with Germany’s recovery of economic competitiveness.  He also forged a close relationship with Putin and with Russia, and opposed the US invasion of Iraq.

Though these were successful policies that were in Germany’s interests, they came for Schroder with a high political price.

Schroder’s economic reforms lost his party, the SPD, the crucial support of a significant part of its working class base.

Meanwhile Schroder’s closeness to Putin and Russia, and his strong opposition to the US invasion of Iraq, upset the US and its Atlanticist allies in the German political establishment.

The result is that Schroder lost the Chancellery, and the SPD has failed to mount an effective challenge to Merkel and the CDU/CSU ever since.

The problem with Merkel’s ultra risk-averse approach is that though in the good times Germany has been living through it can for a time be successful – at least in the narrow political sense of ensuring Merkel’s retention of the Chancellery – it is totally inadequate to deal with crises, and over time the inertia that results from it is causing more and more problems to pile up.

Already there are increasing signs within Germany that the economic gains secured through Schroder’s reforms are gradually eroding away, placing Germany’s economic future at risk.

Within Europe Merkel’s approach has led to broader German and European interests being continuously sacrificed to Merkel’s immediate political needs in Germany itself, with relations between Germany and Russia, and Germany and its European partners, now worse than at any time in recent memory.

Germany and Europe urgently need a change of approach before the problems Merkel is failing to address become completely intractable.  Time is short, and since manifestly Merkel cannot bring about such a change of approach, in its own interests Germany urgently needs to get itself a new Chancellor who can.

From the Financial Times:

What does it say about Europe’s refugee policy that many of those setting it find themselves agreeing more with Viktor Orban than Angela Merkel? It is certainly not the razor wire or tear gas the Hungarian prime minister has deployed at his country’s borders that has won over converts, nor his incendiary speeches about the coming Islamification of the continent.

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As frequently happens with the combative Mr Orban, his tactics and rhetoric have made it nearly impossible for serious policymakers publicly to ally themselves with Budapest.

But privately, many admit that the man has a point. On Tuesday, unless an eleventh-hour compromise is found, EU interior ministers, at the German chancellor’sinsistence, will force all countries to accept a portion of 160,000 Syrian, Eritrean and potentially Iraqi asylum-seekers that have arrived in overburdened Greece and Italy in a decision taken by a majority vote — an act of diplomatic bloodletting rarely seen in Brussels’ corridors of power.

The lack of diplomatic nicety is only part of what has unsettled even those sympathetic to the Berlin-backed policy. Outvoting Czechs, Slovaks and Hungarians — and strong-arming Poles, Latvians and Romanians — on an issue so central to a country’s sovereignty, and so politically radioactive, has left diplomats from other EU members wringing their hands at what they are about to do. Their country, after all, could be next.

The arm-twisting from Berlin has added to the sense of unease. German leaders have publicly and privately warned their former Communist neighbours that the EU development money promised to the bloc’s poorer east could be withdrawn if they do not agree to refugee sharing — a linkage so blatant that more than one diplomat used the word “blackmail” to describe it.

Even this German geopolitical power play might have been overlooked but for one thing: very few diplomats in Brussels think the policy will work. This is where Mr Orban strikes a chord.

As refugees drown at sea or wilt under a Balkan sun as they dash from border to border, EU capitals are debating a relocation scheme that will take months to implement. EU interior ministers agreed in July to move 40,000 refugees from overwhelmed Greece and Italy. None have yet been moved. Logistical arrangements will come up for discussion next month.

Most experts believe that if tens of thousands of refugees are moved to EU countries where they do not want to be, they will simply hop on a train to Germany.

While all this political capital is being spent on a plan most think will not have any real impact, scant attention is being paid to addressing the problem at the source. The UN has for months been warning anyone who will listen that its refugee food programme in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey has run out of money. Officials who work in the region describe scenes of squalor and despair, providing the “push” for migrants that is at least as powerful as the “pull” of Europe’s promise.

So why is the EU about to undergo a week of damaging discord for a policy that has little chance of success? The answer, many diplomats believe, is domestic German politics.

Initial admiration for German generosity has given way to impatience. Many officials involved in the talks suspect that Ms Merkel first signalled Germany’s open arms to refugees as a way to counter the reproval she suffered on the global stage after Berlin strong-armed Greece into an unpalatable bailout deal in July.

That signal backfired badly, those officials say, encouraging thousands of refugees to hop into rickety boats, cross the Hungarian border and find their way to Germany. The influx prompted Berlin to reimpose border controls on its frontier with Austria and to push for Tuesday’s vote on the relocation scheme.

Forcing other countries to agree to take in thousands of refugees is a symbolic gesture intended to reassure the German public that the EU is ready to share the burden, even if it has little practical effect.

Like so much that happens in Brussels, other European leaders are being forced to make political sacrifices to ensure domestic political tranquillity in Germany. No wonder even Mr Orban has found some sympathisers.

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