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How Merkel broke the EU

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Angela Merkel’s response to Europe’s refugee crisis has earned the German leader a reputation the world over as a modern-day Jeanne d’Arc, a bold defender of Western ideals against a populist onslaught, reported Politico (Belgium).

“I have immeasurable respect for Angela Merkel,” former U.S. Vice President Al Gore said during a visit to Berlin this week. “I think she’s an outstanding leader faced with a very difficult set of challenges.”

While that view persists across much of the West, at home, questions about her leadership are growing louder by the day. Beyond the domestic concerns, more and more of Merkel’s erstwhile allies are asking a question still considered sacrilegious among much of Germany’s establishment: Is she tearing Europe apart?

“Dear Angela Merkel, after nearly 13 years as chancellor, the only thing Europe has left for you is animosity,” Malte Pieper, a correspondent of the normally staid German public broadcaster ARD said in a commentary this week that created waves in Berlin. “All the meetings in recent months have illustrated this. Help to finally stop Europe from veering toward division instead of unity! Make room in the chancellery for a successor.”

The German leader has what could well be her last chance to prove her critics wrong at this week’s European Council summit in Brussels. She is under intense pressure to return home with a deal on refugees — one that would allow her Bavarian partners, the Christian Social Union (CSU), who face a tough election campaign, to claim victory in a protracted standoff over the potent question of asylum policy. The trick will be to win such a deal without further alienating the rest of Europe.

Trouble is, Merkel is relying on an argument that is losing its resonance. What’s really at stake, Merkel has suggested time and again, isn’t Germany’s refugee policy, but the very survival of the EU.

“Europe has to stay together,” she said this month in an attempt to deflect the attacks against her. “Especially in this situation, in which Europe is in a very fragile position, it’s very, very important to me that Germany doesn’t act unilaterally.”

With the pressure on Merkel rising, much of Germany’s political and media establishment has joined that chorus. “This isn’t a debate about the future of the chancellor, it’s about the future of Europe,” Handelsblatt Editor Sven Afhüppe wrote in an editorial this week. Sigmar Gabriel, the former leader of the Social Democrats and a longtime political rival of the chancellor’s, sounded a similar note. “I only hope that Angela Merkel remains chancellor,” said Gabriel, warning of the repercussions for Europe if she doesn’t.

Such comments betray an extraordinary fear among many of Berlin’s political elites: Germany’s democratic institutions are not strong enough to preserve Europe; only Merkel can.

With Germany’s establishment backing her, Merkel is likely to prevail in her showdown with Bavaria. No one, not even the Bavarians, wants to be blamed for “destroying Europe.”

That reflex is a testament to Merkel’s continued influence. For whatever one’s view of the chancellor and her motives, it’s difficult to dispute that she herself divided Europe, pushing the Continent closer to the brink than ever before. One needn’t look further than the two major challenges Merkel has faced as chancellor — the eurozone debt crisis and the refugee influx.

“Angela Merkel maneuvered herself into this situation,” said Timo Lochocki, a fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, a think tank. “Her actions in the eurozone and refugee crises irritated many European allies she now needs. And the unsolved conflict within her own party over refugee matters alienated its conservative wing, foremost the CSU.”

Berlin’s insistence that Greece and other European countries with debt troubles impose tough austerity on their populations — whatever the long-term merits of such policies — exacerbated the economic divide within the eurozone, and deepened resentment of German economic might.

And not just in bailout countries like Greece. In Italy, the pressure placed on Rome by Brussels and the Frankfurt-based European Central Bank to reform its sluggish economy was widely blamed on Berlin. Even as Merkel took pains to portray Germany as Europe’s helping hand, many Europeans came to view it as a financial scold whose solidarity came at a heavy price.

If the eurocrisis cracked the Continent, the refugee crisis left a chasm.

This time around, Germany wasn’t offering to help, it was asking for it. And the answer from much of the rest of Europe was a clear “No.”

When Merkel agreed to take in thousands of refugees stranded in Hungary’s main train station in the summer of 2015, she viewed it both as a humanitarian act and a gesture of European solidarity. Her expectation was that other EU countries would “do their part” and accept some of the refugees.

When they refused, Merkel enlisted Brussels’ help to introduce quotas that would force countries to accept refugees. That too failed. As the influx of refugees into Germany reached record levels, the rest of Europe became even more convinced that they wanted no part of Merkel’s humanitarian mission.

After having their own refugee problems ignored for years by Berlin, Spain and Italy felt little urge to come to Merkel’s rescue. In Eastern Europe, countries with little experience of migration or Islam, wondered why they should sacrifice their cultural homogeneity to help the German chancellor.

Though Merkel now warns against unilateral action, it was her unilateral move in 2015 that landed Europe in the mess it now finds itself, her critics say.

Instead of fostering European unity, the debate over the Merkel-sponsored refugee quotas helped fuel the resurgence of identity politics in countries like Hungary, Austria and Italy. During the U.K. referendum on EU membership in 2016, Brexit campaigners used images of refugees en-route to Germany as an example of everything that had gone wrong in Europe.

Indeed, Merkel’s refugee policy alienated not just Germany’s European partners, but much of her own political alliance. As Germany struggled to cope with the influx, Merkel, who long enjoyed near universal appeal, became a polarizing figure at home. The Euroskeptic Alternative for Germany party, which had nearly fizzled into oblivion just before the refugee crisis, sprang back to life with a hard, anti-immigrant message.

What puzzles many observers about Merkel’s reaction to Europe’s growing disunion is that her response has effectively been to sit on her hands.

In the throes of the eurocrisis, Merkel signaled that once stability returned, she would embrace a much bolder vision of the eurozone, setting it on a path toward more political integration. Many in Europe believed such a push was necessary, both to ensure the euro’s longterm survival as well as to reinvigorate the EU after years of economic turmoil and political division.

So when Emmanuel Macron was elected French president on a decidedly pro-European platform, expectations ran high that under Merkel’s leadership Germany would finally jump over its shadow, accept more risk and loosen its purse strings in the name of a united EU.

Instead, Merkel waited a year to engage Macron on European reform. What she offered in the end, as even her staunch supporters acknowledge, is a far cry from the great leap forward many had been hoping for — a vague promise for a “fiscal capacity” for the eurozone of a few billion euros.

Merkel, worried about alienating her conservative base, blinked.

Meanwhile, with next year’s European election fast approaching, the window of opportunity for bold action opened by Macron is quickly closing.

When it comes to refugees, Merkel is equally unlikely to deliver. She has all but acknowledged that the best she can probably hope for from this week’s summit is that other countries will commit to help alleviate Germany’s burden with narrow bilateral deals.

That may be enough to keep the Bavarians at bay until election day. But even if Merkel wins the battle in Brussels, the war over her refugee policies, and by extension her political future, is certain to rage on.

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