Facing anger and discontent at home and abroad, Merkel, the standard bearer of liberal internationalism, is at risk of being sacrificed to the far right, writes Alan Philps
France and Germany are trying to relaunch Old Europe as the forces of populism circle
In 2003, as the United States prepared to invade Iraq, the defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld caused outrage among Washington’s allies by dividing them into “Old Europe” and “New Europe”.
Old Europe was France and Germany, the duo that had powered integration since the 1950s and opposed the looming war in the Middle East.
New Europe was made up of countries such as Poland – new members of the European Union whose experience of Soviet domination encouraged them to stick closely to the US military.
That painful division has since been patched up. But a similar split is reappearing in a new and potentially more damaging form as President Emmanuel Macron of France tries to re-engage the old Franco-German motor to extricate the 28-member bloc from a swamp of indecision.
At the centre is this dispute is the embattled German chancellor, Angela Merkel, a pillar of Old Europe, who sees her country as a good global citizen. Largely pacifist, Germany is willing to open its doors to the world’s needy and oppressed.
It was this conviction that led Mrs Merkel to allow one million migrants to enter Germany in 2015-16, a decision now increasingly challenged at home and among Germany’s neighbours.
She now finds herself hemmed in by the countries of New Europe – and some others – led by the far-right Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, who has tightened his grip on power by rejecting any suggestion that his country will accept migrants under a Europe-wide redistribution plan proposed by Mrs Merkel.
And now an Orban ally is poised to become prime minster of Slovenia, an Alpine country not previously known as a trouble-maker in the EU. The encirclement of Germany has spread to the south, where Italy’s far-right and Eurosceptic coalition has upended European refugee policy by closing its ports to ships that pick up distressed migrants trying to sail from the North African coast to Europe.
But most unsettling for Mrs Merkel is that she is now at war with the Christian Social Union (CSU), a Bavarian party, which has been her own party’s partner in government and opposition for 70 years.
The hardline CSU interior minister, Horst Seehofer, is planning to order police at the border to refuse entry to asylum-seekers who have already registered in another EU country – usually Italy, Greece or Spain.
Mrs Merkel has countermanded him, arguing that Germany has to seek a European solution to the problem, not add to the chaos and undermine the principle of freedom of movement.
To complicate matters, Italy is proposing its own plan to abolish the rule that asylum-seekers must be registered in their country of arrival – mostly Italy this year. Instead, the new coalition in Rome wants migrants to be processed in holding centres around the EU, or more controversially in “regional disembarkation platforms” outside the EU in North Africa.
With her coalition under threat and predictions that her 12 years in power might be about to end, Mrs Merkel will attend a two-day European Summit beginning on Thursday, which will attempt to square the circle of the migration crisis.
In the past one could have expected some progress on Mr Macron’s radical plans to strengthen the eurozone – the 19 members of the EU which use the single currency, the euro – by giving it its own budget and finance minister. But with Mrs Merkel’s fate in the balance, there will be little time for grand plans.
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There are some EU leaders who would rejoice at the demise of Mrs Merkel, but no one should underestimate her dogged ability to work through complex problems.
And with all EU governments threatened by disruptive, populist forces, the old guard will not be keen to see the standard bearer of liberal internationalism sacrificed to the far right.
It seems the solution she will try to reach will not be a smooth pan-European one but rather a coalition of member states that are willing to share the burden of migrant processing in order to ease the pressure on Italy, while aiming for the more problematic goal of preventing migrants arriving in European ports altogether.
Mrs Merkel’s problems are not all about migration, although the headline-grabbing Italian government has ensured this is so. There are strong economic undercurrents. The rebellion of the CSU against Mrs Merkel is prompted by a regional election in October when it will face a strong challenge from the Eurosceptic and anti-migrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) party.
The CSU is concerned that Mrs Merkel, having stalled for months on how to respond to President Macron’s reform plans, is now inching towards accepting his proposals, even to the extent of not ruling out a eurozone budget.
For German tax-payers this is a slippery slope which leads to them funding profligate southern European countries such as Italy, which have failed to adjust to the German-designed fiscal straitjacket that is the euro. Whatever assurances are given by Mr Macron, there is a suspicion that non-German banks will indulge in a frenzy of casino-style lending, and come to Berlin to bail them out.
So Mrs Merkel’s coalition partners are sending a warning signal on two topics – migration and eurozone reform.
They are not alone – countries in New Europe which have not yet joined the euro are wary of being left behind in a two-speed Europe – which seems the logical conclusion of the Macron plan.
While all eyes are on Mrs Merkel, EU leaders are quietly following Mr Macron’s popularity, which fell to a new low this month. Countries in New Europe that do not want Mr Macron’s prescription of more Europe but instead want more freedom for member states will be happy to see the French president stumble.
More broadly, the lesson of the intertwined European crises is that plans hatched between Paris and Berlin are redolent of the old days before the great expansion eastwards.
They will not fly in an era when the EU is split east to west on the basis of national identity and north to south by the migration crisis.
Alan Philps is editor of The World Today magazine of international affairs