Ten days ago, Angela Merkel basked in a rapturous ovation at the end of her 70-minute speech to the annual convention of her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) political party in Karlsruhe. After a week’s hard struggle, the party endorsed her policy of welcoming one million refugees from civil war and terrorism into Germany, and Merkel added this triumph to her selection by Time magazine as “Person of the Year” for 2015 as she celebrated completing her tenth year as Chancellor of Germany.
At Karlsruhe, Merkel proclaimed “I have never experienced such a year as 2015, a year that is hard to comprehend,” strong words for an East German who experienced liberation and unification in 1989-90 and elevation to the Chancellor’s office in 2005. She listed the momentous challenges of the year: the January terrorist attacks in Paris, the crash of the Germanwings airliner in March, war in eastern Ukraine, thorny negotiations over the Greek debt crisis, and the November terrorist attacks yet again in Paris. Still, she remarked, in the midst of this tumult, “an ocean of humans” distanced themselves from the “sick logic” of terrorism both in Germany and around the world, and world leaders gathered in Paris in December to sign the Paris Agreement on climate change. Again and again, she repeated her slogan, “Wir schaffen das,” “we will do this,” as she turned to a defense of her decision in August to welcome refugees: “That was nothing more or less than a humanitarian imperative.”
Whatever criticism Merkel may draw from candidates in the United States, she stands at the end of 2015 as an unchallenged figure. Determined, energetic, and newly decisive, Merkel faces no serious rival for leadership in Germany or in Europe. Despite declines in her personal popularity as refugees flocked to Germany during the fall, Merkel outstrips any conceivable political rival, either from her home party of the CDU or its Bavarian ally the Christian Social Union, or from her coalition partner the Social Democratic Party. Whereas German chancellors have long led the European Union (EU) in close partnership with strong French presidents such as Francois Mitterand, Jacques Chirac, and Nicolas Sarkozy, the domestic political weakness of current president Francois Hollande and the incomparable strength of the German economy have forced Merkel to lead from the front, and she has risen to the challenge.
The challenges of 2015 that Merkel noted in Karlsruhe will not disappear in 2016. She continues to balance on a political high-wire over her policy toward refugees. Germany has vast experience greeting and assimilating refugees, albeit with varying degrees of success, dating back to postwar German expellees from eastern Europe in the 1940s; guest workers from Spain and Portugal, Italy, Greece, and then Turkey in the 1950s and 1960s; Sinhalese refugees fleeing civil war in Sri Lanka and ethnic Germans as well as Jews from the Soviet Union in the 1980s; and waves of Bosnians and Kossovar Albanians in the 1990s. But while to the neo-liberal political class, refugees promise youth and demographic growth to support an aging population, to workers in a labor market only recently returned to health and to rural and small town Germans, refugees represent competition and a challenge to the “Germanness” of German culture. Anti-foreigner groups such as Pegida in Dresden (Patriotische Europäer gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlandes, Patriotic Europeans against the Islamicization of the Occident) represent a populist racism that always sets off alarms about Germany. Nevertheless, important forces in German society support Merkel’s generous policy, evidenced by the “Thankfulness and Blessing” church service in the Berlin (Protestant) Cathedral on the third Sunday of Advent, December 13, to honor volunteers who work in Berlin to welcome and resettle refugees, under the slogan “Sie schaffen das jeden Tag,” “You do this every day.” Moreover, even new political configurations that oppose Merkel’s policies on Europe and on refugees, such as the Alternative for Germany, espouse far less virulent racist ideologies than the National Front in France, the British National Party, or segments of the Republican Party in the United States.
Merkel will also in 2016 continually face challenges to European integration and to the European project. David Cameron has delivered his list of demands for special treatment for Britain in an effort to extricate himself from the corner into which he has painted Britain, and Merkel has already signaled her impatience with his petulance. Within the Eurozone, the Greek debt crisis, which has already led the EU to take over support of refugees who reach Greece from Turkey and to suspend rules requiring them to remain in the first EU country to which they gain access, is not solved and will require further attention. And newer EU members with right-wing nationalist governments, such as Hungary, Slovakia, and now Poland, flout EU rules and even depart from democracy and the rule of law in ways that violate Merkel’s (and Germany’s) strong commitment to dependability and playing by the rules. And lurking beyond is the challenge to security posed by Vladimir Putin’s policies in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, where the EU has voted this weekend to continue sanctions against Russia for another six months, despite the shaky cease-fire that has mostly held since September.
While Angela Merkel is no titan who bestrides the European scene, she nevertheless towers above all possible rivals and commands significant trust and toleration even for policies that many Germans question. Her sure hand during 2015 has solidified her position as the indispensable political leader both for Germany in perilous times and for the entire project of European integration, whatever her critics in the United States, in Britain, and in Greece may say.
Professor Ledford holds appointments in the Department of History and the School of Law at Case Western Reserve University, where he teaches German history, European legal history, the history of European legal professions, historical methods, and the history of European Union law.