People outside of Germany often have quite a distorted picture of Chancellor Angela Merkel. This is especially true for the non-mainstream right, which regards her as almost a demonic figure, a traitor to the German people and Western civilization in general who opened the floodgates to hordes of Muslim immigrants. This assessment is typically based on Merkel’s decision to continue allowing in large numbers of asylum seekers in 2015, epitomised by her famous sentence, “Wir schaffen das!” (“We can do it!”)
However, basing one’s entire assessment of Merkel on that single issue would be a serious misjudgement since her decision on the migrant issue is in fact highly atypical of Merkel’s long political career. Since she first became Chancellor in 2005, she has generally kept her cards very close to her chest, avoided taking controversial positions, and has done her level best to keep ideology out of politics. The best way to think of her is not as a political leader but as a constitutional monarch: While her ministers squabble about the petty politics of the day, Queen Angela is above such pedestrian concerns and only occasionally hands down rulings when things get out of hand. When she does act, she usually does so behind the scenes.
I suspect that Merkel’s extreme caution is a result of her experience with the 2005 election campaign. Back then she was running against incumbent Chancellor Schröder, a social democrat who had become quite unpopular. A few months out from the election, the polls showed a landslide victory for Merkel and her conservative Union. The only question seemed to be whether she would get an absolute majority (almost unheard of in German politics), or whether she would need to bring in the classical liberal FDP as a junior partner in a coalition. One of the key issues of the campaign was the budget deficit. As part of the solution, Merkel’s CDU proposed increasing the VAT by two percentage points, which proved to be quite an unpopular position. Schröder’s SPD vehemently opposed any increase in the VAT, which played a large role in allowing the SPD to catch up. On election night, the Union lost ground compared to earlier polls, while the SPD gained ground, resulting in Merkel winning only by the narrowest of margins. She did manage to become chancellor, but had to form a coalition government with the SPD as an equal partner. In the coalition negotiations, a compromise solution was reached on VAT: to increase it by three percentage points! In other words, the SPD, it seems, had been in favour of raising the VAT all along, but by hiding their unpopular plans, they gained an enormous number of votes and managed to cling on to power. The lesson Merkel presumably took from this is to scrupulously avoid taking any strong positions that might prove to be controversial.
Merkel’s bold proclamation on the migrant crisis was a marked departure from her usual style, and her only major violation of the lessons of 2005. We can only speculate as to why she did it, but my guess is that she wanted to ensure her place in the history books. Whatever her motivations, her proclamation backfired politically and cost her party dearly in some state elections in 2015 and increased support for the AfD, a right-wing Eurosceptic party critical of immigration.
When Merkel realised her mistake, she did not publicly revoke her proclamation of “Wir schaffen das!” That would have been an admission of weakness and a PR disaster. Instead, she got back to her old Merkelian form and started working in the background to limit immigration by asylum seekers, for example by cutting a deal with Turkey. These efforts have been very successful and have reduced the number of newly arrived asylum seekers from the record number of 890,000 in 2015 to the much more manageable 280,000 in 2016 (and of those, about half arrived in January and Febuary). These are the official numbers, and the real numbers, taking into account undocumented migrants, are bound to be substantially higher, but nevertheless we have seen a drastic reduction.
If the current trend continues, the numbers of asylum seekers will remain manageable and Germany will, in true Merkelian fashion, continue to muddle through. Merkelian politics are neither pretty nor inspiring, but they work reasonably well. And this, it seems to me, is about as much as you can expect from politics. Politics will not and does not need to solve our problems. As long as politicians don’t screw things up too badly, the market and civil society will continue to improve our lives.
This is why I won’t be sad when Merkel’s reign continues beyond the 2017 election, as is very likely. Based on current polls and the statements that the major parties have made on possible coalitions, a forth term for Merkel seems almost inevitable. Nor do I regard that outcome as undesireable. Although I have many disagreements with Merkel and her CDU, she is likely to screw things up less badly than the only realistic alternative, a government led by Martin Schulz and his Social Democrats. Thus I say: Long live the Queen!