Wed, Sep 13, 2017 - Page 9 News List

How Merkel climbed out of the asylum seeker political abyss

By Noah Barkin  /  Reuters, BERLIN

Near the end of a recent campaign speech in northern Germany, German Chancellor Angela Merkel turned to Europe’s refugee crisis of 2015 and offered her audience a comforting dual message.

Germans should be proud of the warm welcome they gave hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers, many of them fleeing war and persecution in the Middle East, she told an audience of more than 1,000 gathered in the fishing village of Steinhude.

Then she shifted gears: “What happened in 2015 cannot, should not and must not happen again.”

It is a phrase she has used repeatedly in market squares across Germany as she campaigns for a fourth term in a federal election on Sept. 24 that she is widely expected to win.

Two years since she opened Germany’s borders to asylum seekers to avert what she says was a looming humanitarian disaster, and saw her popularity slide as a result, Merkel has climbed her way out of the deepest hole of her political career.

SPINNING A NARRATIVE

There are many factors behind her comeback, but few are as important as her skill at spinning a narrative about the refugee crisis that many Germans can support, whether they cheered or condemned her actions of 2015.

“Merkel is not running on a policy of open borders and that fits perfectly with the mood in the country,” said Robin Alexander, author of a best-selling book on the German government’s handling of the refugee crisis.

“Many people like the image of Germany as a model of humanitarian virtue. At the same time they know the country could not continue to welcome refugees like it did. It is this set of feelings that Merkel is appealing to,” he said.

By the end of 2015, 890,000 asylum seekers had entered Germany, many without proper identity checks, overwhelming local communities.

Merkel’s actions divided Europe and led to a surge in anti-immigrant sentiment. The hard-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party seems sure to enter parliament for the first time.

A year after her decision, and following a series of small-scale attacks in Germany by Muslim militants, her popularity ratings had plunged 30 points to 45 percent and she faced questions about whether she would run for chancellor again.

Yet today, 63 percent of Germans say she is doing a good job and, according to a Bertelsmann Foundation survey this week, 59 percent believe the country is on the right track.

“It has been a long, difficult road back,” one of her top aides said. “But we have gotten to a point where the refugee issue is no longer a negative for Merkel in the election campaign.”

BREXIT, TRUMP

Merkel has been helped by external events such as Britain’s vote for Brexit last year and US President Donald Trump’s election victory in last year’s presidential election, both of which reinforced her appeal as a guarantor of stability.

A decision by Macedonia early last year to shut its border with Greece stemmed the flow of refugees, easing pressure on Germany. The country has also not suffered a large-scale Muslim militant attack, an event which might have triggered a voter backlash.

However, Merkel’s knack for understanding how Germans tick has also been crucial.

At many of her public appearances, she is confronted by anti-immigration protesters who try to drown out her speeches with whistles and chants of “Merkel must go.”

In Steinhude, a woman held up a sign showing Merkel’s diamond-shaped hand pose over a German flag with a blood-spattered bullet hole in the middle.

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