It’s not about Merkel’s power – it’s about Europe!

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THOMAS BEHRENS

Being in power for a decade now, Angela Merkel at the beginning of 2016 is characterized by German newspapers as Chancellor desperately under pressure, finally having a tryst with destiny. For many journalists she seems to have lost both the essential and indispensable support within her own party as well as the approval of the German people. But in fact, Merkel’s power today is unquestionable – at least until key state elections coming up next month.

It’s impossible these days not to see that political atmosphere in Germany has changed dramatically since September 2015. Remains of the so-called “Willkommenskultur”[1] are a public mood of anger and heated debates about issues like ‚Refugee Crisis – How long can Merkel keep up?’ or ‚Migrant crisis to spell doom for German Chancellor?’.

In this regard the events on New Year’s Eve in Cologne[2] could be considered as a game changer. Whereas in December[3] a majority of 51 to 46 percent of respondents agreed, Germany could cope with the influx, showing support for Merkel’s political actions more or less in balance (47 percent approving vs. 49 percent disagreeing), now the situation is different. Today’s polls[4] show 66 percent of Germans (first shocked about the news, then concerned and angry about inefficient police forces and politicians) expecting more crimes to be committed by migrants. Meanwhile only 41 percent agree with the Chancellor’s approach. But in contrast 54 percent of respondents openly disagree – and even one out of three (31 percent) believe, that the dispute over refugee policy will prematurely force Angela Merkel to resign from office.

So criticism is growing and Merkel – in the context of refugee policy “held responsible for everything”[5] – is losing trust. But does this justify casting doubt on her political future in general – literally spoken, to write her off? No, it does not, because overlooking all the different so-called veto players within the German political system, there is no chance to deprive Merkel of her power, and she is willing to go on.

In her own camp, Merkel is criticized by local politicians from overburdened municipalities as well as by 44 members of the CDU/CSU-parliamentary group in Berlin, who recently signed a protest letter asking the Chancellor to change course on her refugee policy. But what does that mean? Parliamentarians from CDU-led conservative bloc, as few of these critics already admitted, seriously would never let Merkel down as Chancellor. In fact the openly expressed criticism now, halfway through the parliamentary term, is explainable. It is due to the circumstance, that the CDU/CSU-parliamentary group – as result of the successful election in 2013 – is larger than usual. [6]  Therefore the conservative bloc is less characterized by discipline. And because many delegates are afraid of probably not being re-elected in 2017, they now see – as well as local representatives under pressure – a short-term chance in wooing voters, who are angry and worried, because the influx is now straining the infrastructure of their municipalities. Certainly this threatens to narrow governments’ policy space, because Merkel gets thereby publicly on the defensive. But for the time being, seen from a long-term strategic point of view, Merkel does not have to be concerned of this skeptical minority in the Bundestag or the present disappointment and anger in local communities. In this regard, the further development remains to be seen.

The situation is similar with reproaches by CDU’s sister party, the Christian Social Union, chaired by Bavarian Prime Minister Seehofer. The southern part of Germany suffers most from the influx. It is therefore not surprising that its representatives demand significant announcements and solutions to reduce immigration. To save face and to demonstrate ability to act, chairman Seehofer is criticizing Merkel constantly. But this is not a sign of irreconcilable disagreement. It is a means to an end – not only for CSU, but for the whole Union (CSU and CDU)[7] – to match the mood of the people and in particular stop losing voters to right-wing populists of the AfD, a radical party, whose rise for Merkel and her conservative bloc is the most dangerous effect of the refugee crisis by far in the months ahead.

What finally matters is that CDU and CSU are two parties, but one joint parliamentary group. And because the sister party from Bavaria is also part of the reigning coalition in Berlin, there is no serious threat for Merkel. Nor are Social Democrats challenging Merkel today, because SPD under Gabriel’s leadership is neither acting unified nor presenting a compelling problem-solving approach. Not to mention other groups of the Bundestag – The Left Party and Alliance 90/The Greens – which do not have much influence these days.

Nevertheless the press is currently highlighting Merkel’s doom as Chancellor, and journalists relate on her plunging popularity. Indeed, her approval rating – as released at the beginning of February 2016[8] – fell 12 percentage points to 46 percent, the lowest since August 2011. But it is continuously ignored within reports that Social Democrats do not benefit. While CDU/CSU dropped in polls from about 42 percent in September 2015 to now 35 percent, SPD still remains on 24 percent.[9] And as no successor candidate is established within the conservative camp to step in for Merkel as CDU-chairman or Chancellor, media should not focus on Merkel’s potential loss of power.

It is much more important to see, that Chancellor Merkel already has undertaken tremendous efforts to reduce migration to Europe: for example law reforms for more efficient and restricted national immigration and asylum policies, negotiations with Turkey or substantial financial support for countries in the Middle East. And at least up to the summit in Brussels in mid-February, she intends to continue asking European leaders for their solidarity and support. But analysts and political advisers should never underestimate her ability to change, and if Merkel’s popularity rating continues to decline and the magnitude exceeds certain limits, the Chancellor still early enough has the option to adjust her agenda and governmental actions to the demands of their opponents.

Furthermore it should be taken account of the fact that, apart from refugee issues, Merkel’s political record is outstanding. People in Germany are mostly longing for economic stability, growth and security. That is, what Merkel – throughout the years since 2005 and despite the European debt crisis – is able to refer to: only 2,92 million unemployed persons in Germany[10], national economy growing by 1.7 percent in 2015, the strongest rate of expansion in four years[11],  and the budget draft 2016 does not envisage any new debts[12].

What is marginalizing these positive numbers is that refugee policy over the last few months has become the most urgent topic. And the criminal incidents in Cologne paired with excessive reports unsettled the public and let people fall back on stereotypes. For Politicians this situation is extremely difficult to deal with. But Merkel can withstand this. And as Conservatives – as polls are indicating today[13] – is likely to capture key states as Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate, where state elections are taking place on March 13th, Merkel will even be less questionable as leader of CDU.

Maybe people in Germany as well as in Europe should rather think of options to support Merkel in her ambition to take on new challenges and to defend European values than to speculate on her farewell as German Chancellor. The next summit in Brussels once again provides an opportunity to agree on common solutions.


  • [1] Referring to open-door policy on refugees, the German word “Willkommenskultur” means “welcome culture” and is used to encourage help for the hundreds of thousands of refugees coming to Germany.
  • [2] On New Year’s Eve 2016 in Cologne, Germany, 1.000 drunken men mostly of “Arab of North African origin” were responsible for attacking women on the crowded square outside the city’s famous cathedral and main railway station, sparking a wave of anti-refugee protests across Germany.
  • [3] Forschungsgruppe Wahlen, „Politbarometer Dezember. 2015“, 11.12.2015, http://www.forschungsgruppe.de/Umfragen/Politbarometer/Archiv/Politbarometer_2015/Dezember_2015/.
  • [4] Forschungsgruppe Wahlen, „Politbarometer Januar II 2016”, 29.1.2016, http://www.forschungsgruppe.de/Umfragen/Politbarometer/Archiv/Politbarometer_2016/Januar_II_2016/.
  • [5] Richard Herzinger, „Die Kritik an Merkel hat jedes Maß verloren“, Die Welt, 1.2.2016.
  • [6] 18th German Bundestag (since 2013)/ CDU-CSU: 310 seats; 17th German Bundestag (2009-2013)/ CDU-CSU: 239 seats.
  • [7] In this context it is important to know, that only people in Bavaria are formally (!) able to vote for CSU. But because CDU and CSU, based on an agreement in 1949, are cooperating at the federal level together as sister parties, people outside of Bavaria, who actually prefer more right-wing policy within the Union, feel also attracted to vote for the more moderate CDU knowing, that CSU will try to influence CDU’s decisions in their favor.
  • [8] infratest dimap, „DeutschlandTrend / Februar 2016 – Politikerzufriedenheit“, 3.2.2016, http://www.infratest-dimap.de/umfragen-analysen/bundesweit/ard-deutschlandtrend/2016/februar/.
  • [9] infratest dimap, „Sonntagsfrage (bundesweit)“, 3.2.2016, http://www.infratest-dimap.de/umfragen-analysen/bundesweit/sonntagsfrage/.
  • [10] Spiegel-online, „Jobmarkt: Arbeitslosenzahl steigt im Januar weniger als üblich“, http://www.spiegel.de/wirtschaft/soziales/arbeitslosenzahl-steigt-im-januar-weniger-als-ueblich-a-1075219.html.
  • [11] Reuters, „German economy grew at strongest rate in four years in 2015”, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-germany-economy-gdp-idUSKCN0US0XC20160114.
  • [12] Bundesministerium der Finanzen, „Haushaltsentwurf 2016 und Finanzplan bis 2019 – keine neuen Schulden“, https://www.bundesfinanzministerium.de/Content/DE/Pressemitteilungen/Finanzpolitik/2015/07/2015-07-01-PM23.html.
  • [13] Aktuelle Landtagswahlumfragen, http://www.wahlrecht.de/umfragen/landtage/index.htm; on March 13th 2016 state elections will also be held in Saxony-Anhalt, which – with regard to the German political system and tradition – is also import_ant, but not considered to be a key state for CDU.

Thomas Behrens, editor and policy analyst, writes scientific reports and comments (e.g. for ‘Instytut Obywatelski’, ‘Centrum Stosunków Międzynarodowych’) and is a guest lecturer at the German Law School (‘Szkoła prawa niemieckiego’) in Warsaw. He studied at the University of Bonn and has a master degree (M.A.) in political science. In Warsaw he worked at the Institute of Public Affairs (ISP) and at the Polish office of the Konrad-Adenauer Stiftung (KAS). Expertise: German politics and political system, Polish-German relations, Civic Education, media analysis.


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