It has become habitual for the German federal government to describe all critics of its policy to allow a nearly un-trolled influx of illegal to enter the country as “populists”. But in fact the term “populism” provides the key for understanding Angela Merkel’s own policy on this issue, which otherwise, being completely adverse to Germany’s and Europe’s political and economic interests, would remain unintelligible.
Angela Merkel is the quintessential populist politician. This is what explains her success in the last ten years – but this is also what will lead to her downfall. Indeed, the explanation of Germany’s migration crisis is a surprisingly simple one: Angela Merkel has been trapped by her own populist approach to politics. She mistook the published opinion for the public opinion, and/or was surprised when the public opinion shifted more swiftly than she could follow.
Angela Merkel’s politics are often described as pragmatic, and un-ideological. That may be true, and indeed many life-long Christian Democrats are despairing about the way in which she has completely cleansed her political action from even the most remote trace of Christian thought.
But the correct name for her pragmatism is populism.
Mrs. Merkel has no political vision of her own, but she has a sheer insatiable thirst for political power. She does not care too much about what should be decided, as long as she is the one making the decisions. Maintaining or abolishing compulsory army service, legalizing or prohibiting euthanasia, allowing or closing down nuclear power plants – who cares? What is important is that Merkel remains in power.
To understand Merkel’s approach to governing, it is highly useful to read an article that was published in the weekly Der Spiegel two years ago, at a time when Merkel’s popularity was at such levels that it seemed impossible to think anybody could ever successfully challenge her. In that article one learned of the truly astonishing budget that the Federal Chancellery keeps spending on opinion polls on every possible subject – around 150 opinion polls per year, i.e. 3 per week. Even though these surveys are financed with taxpayers’ money, the results are usually kept secret, which provides the Chancellor with an important strategic advantage: she knows much better than her political competitors what the people really thinks.
In other words, Merkel’s success strategy is to govern on the basis of opinion surveys. When a new subject of discussion arises, she leans back and waits. Others may take position, but Mrs. Merkel just waits to see in which direction the public opinion will shift. Once she knows this, she will join the winning side.
If the term “populism” has any meaning, then Angela Merkel’s approach to government is probably best described as institutionalized populism.
The method seemed infallible for as long as there were no unforeseeable vacillations of the public mood. But the migration crisis has revealed its dangers and weaknesses.
In July 2015, when the refugee crisis was only just beginning, Merkel visited a school class in Rostock. In that school class there was a little girl, Reem Sahwil, from a family of Palestinian asylum seekers. When some children were allowed to ask questions, Reem took the floor and asked whether Mrs. Merkel could do something to make sure that her family could stay in Germany. The Chancellor replied – very correctly – that Germany was doing its best to provide a place for all those who were entitled to asylum, but that unfortunately it would not be possible to grant asylum to everyone, including those who were not able to prove their entitlement. Some, she said, will have to go back.
She then passed on to the next question – but suddenly there was a turn of the camera: little Reem had burst out in sobs.
Mrs. Merkel immediately went to put her arm around the little girl’s shoulders to comfort her. It was actually quite a nice and humane gesture, and Mrs. Merkel never seemed to deserve her nickname “Mutti” (“Mum”) as much as on this occasion.
But what followed was a shit-storm. The mass media were nearly unanimous (with some few exceptions, such as this) in condemning the Chancellor for her callous and un-caring attitude towards the young girl, and towards refugees in general. Her attempt to console the weeping refugee girl was dubbed as “hypocrisy”.
This appears to have been a turning point. What Mrs. Merkel learned from her encounter with Reem and the sub-sequent negative media coverage was that anything but the most unreserved openness to whoever claimed to be a refugee would result in negative headlines. Next time she would have to do better.
And so she did. The next occasion to do better was when tens of thousands of refugees who, having illegally entered Hungarian territory, refused to stay in the refugee camps provided by the Hungarian government and instead marched first to Budapest and then towards the Austrian border. As one will remember (although the memory seems quite remote by now!), the world press was extremely critical at the alleged harshness of the Hungarian government with regard to the refugees. This was the occasion for Merkel to set herself off, to distinguish herself as the generous and friendly face of a welcoming Europe.
Of course she was rewarded by positive headlines. For several weeks, Germany indulged in a collective outbreak of self-congratulation over its newly discovered “culture of welcome”. If any critics managed to raise their voices, they were quickly silenced and reprimanded. This was Good-Germany vs. Bad-Germany, and there was no doubt as to where Mrs. Merkel stood.
Alas, it was not going to last.
The public opinion has shifted back, and quite radically so. And this time the shift was too quick and too radical for Mrs. Merkel to follow suit. Her statements in favour of unlimited acceptance of asylum seekers had been so radical, and her action so determined, that it now is impossible to come back on them without total loss of credibility. What is more, it is by more than clear that the more than one million illegal migrants that Germany has let in within just a few weeks of collective enthusiasm are likely to be the source of cultural conflicts that will last for many decades.
Populism can be a successful strategy for quite a stretch of time – but sooner or later there comes a day when it will fail. And when that day comes, the failure tends to be dramatic.
In three German regions there will be regional elections on the 13 of March, and the forecasts are terrible for Angela Merkel’s Party, the Christian Democrat Union.