Merkel stands, more or less, on her record

For the first time in 93 years, the three big powers of western Europe all go to the polls this year. With Britain and France done, it’s Germany next, on 24 September.

I plan to have quite a bit to say on the German election over the next two months (you can read my reports on the last one here and here), but for now don’t miss a piece by Klauss Neumann this week at Inside Story. It’s a long read, but it’s essential background for understanding where German politics is at at the moment, especially in relation to the refugee question.

Neumann reports that Martin Schulz, leader of the Social Democrats – who are in a governing coalition with Angela Merkel and her Christian Democrats, but also, in the way of these things, challenging her for the top job – is sounding a more sceptical note about Germany’s welcome to Middle Eastern (primarily Syrian) asylum seekers:

Schulz must be hoping that voters not only overwhelmingly regret Germany’s generous response in 2015, but also single out Merkel as the one who should be blamed. He has some reason to be optimistic. Surveys suggest most Germans believe that their country took in more asylum seekers than it should have in 2015. And Schulz’s likely claim that Merkel alone is to blame for Germany’s response could draw on evidence that many might find persuasive.

So far, so consistent with the line so commonly heard in Australia (and elsewhere) that Merkel’s humane response – summarised in her famous line “Wir schaffen das”, or “We can do this” – was at best a ghastly political mistake and at worst a betrayal of western civilisation. It’s remarkable how many otherwise decent and rational people seem to have completely bought this narrative.

Neumann gives full hearing to that view, only to then blow it out of the water. He argues firstly that Merkel’s actions were driven by a genuine hatred of xenophobia, and secondly that her position remains fundamentally in tune with the majority of German voters:

When Merkel declared at her party’s annual congress in December last year that “a situation like that in the late summer of 2015 cannot, should not and must not be repeated,” she was referring less to her decision not to close the borders than to the often chaotic way in which that decision was implemented. At the same time, she has always been ready to tell Germans they ought to be proud of the country’s accommodation of 890,000 asylum seekers in 2015.

I suspect it will be Schulz’s downfall to have underestimated the sense of pride Germans feel when looking back at 2015. That sense of pride has become more pronounced since the election of Donald Trump. Germans like to tell themselves that they can do better — and are more relaxed about the challenges of globalisation — than the big brother on the other side of the Atlantic.

Read the whole thing and judge for yourself, but it seems to me that he’s probably right. If the Germans really thought that Merkel had done the wrong thing, it’s hard to see why so many of them would still be planning to vote for her. After a period of closeness earlier this year, her lead over the Social Democrats is now into the mid-teens, and rising. Hence Neumann’s view that Schulz’s latest tactic is more than anything “a sign of desperation.”

Much could change, of course, in two months. We’ll keep watching.

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