Merkel on the brink as liberal dream crumbles

Time’s up? At 12 and a half years, Merkel is the longest-serving leader in Western Europe.

Where now for Europe? Angela Merkel, the symbol of the continent’s liberal consensus, is in trouble. Her coalition is on the verge of collapse over migration. Nationalists are on the rise.

In 2015, Angela Merkel was named Time magazine’s person of the year for her decision to allow hundreds of thousands of refugees to seek asylum in Germany.

A year later, as Brexit and President Donald Trump sent shockwaves through the West, “Mutti” Merkel was hailed by liberals everywhere as their last great hope. She had been the German chancellor for over a decade and appeared untouchable.

Everything has changed. Last September she suffered a shock at the German federal election. Though she remained in power, she had to cobble together an unstable-looking coalition. Now, that agreement is in jeopardy. Some believe she may not last the summer.

Horst Seehofer, Germany’s interior minister, has threatened to quit in protest at Merkel’s migration policy. He argues that Germany should turn away migrants at the border if they have sought asylum in another country.

Doing this would reverse Merkel’s open-door policy on refugees, and has the potential to lead other European countries to do the same. Merkel, then, is keen on an EU-wide deal.

Migration is back at the top of the EU’s agenda thanks to Italy’s new populist government. With the majority of migrants to Europe hitting its shores first, Italy’s government thinks it should get more help from the EU. The country has already started clamping down on arrivals.

All across Europe, countries are moving away from Merkel’s vision of open borders.

Poland and Hungary are both run by right-wing populists. Both governments enjoy levels of support that would make Western European leaders envious.

Having populists in Eastern Europe is one thing, but having them running Italy and Austria is quite another matter. “The balance of power keeps changing, shifting ever further away from Merkel,” writes Fredrik Erixon in The Spectator.

Europe’s new divide is over something much deeper than economics. It involves questions about identity, culture and values.

The continent is at a crucial crossroads. Will it choose cosmopolitan liberalism or old-fashioned nationalism?

European disunion

The evidence is clear, say some. Merkel has lost the argument. European publics never wanted open borders, and Merkel is paying the price for her rash decision in 2015. All across Europe, the right is on the rise. Where they are in power, they are popular. From now on, Europe will march to the tune of Budapest, not Berlin.

Do not be so sure, reply others. The pastor’s daughter is a dogged political survivor, and so is the ideology she espouses. Europe has gone down the path of disunity recently enough to know that it will go wrong. And things are not so bleak for liberals; the hard-right are nowhere near power in most of Europe’s major countries.

You Decide

  1. Is Angela Merkel overrated?
  2. Is migration the biggest issue facing the world today?


  1. On a map of Europe, illustrate the key divides in modern European politics.
  2. Write a speech to be given to a conference of major politicians throughout Europe about what you think should be done about Europe’s migration crisis.

Some People Say...

“Europe is like a bicycle, you either pedal or you fall.”

Jacques Delors

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Angela Merkel’s coalition is in trouble over a serious disagreement about migration. Horst Seehofer, the interior minister who heads Bavaria’s Christian Social Union (CSU), a key party in Merkel's coalition, believes Germany should be able to turn away certain asylum seekers at the border. We know that, across Europe, parties opposed to migration are gaining in the polls.
What do we not know?
What will happen to Merkel. If Seehofer ends the CSU’s alliance with Merkel’s party, the Christian Democrats (CDU), she would lose her parliamentary majority. Merkel could stay in power with a weaker, minority government. Alternatively, she could resign as chancellor, or call a confidence vote, which might trigger new elections.

Word Watch

Hundreds of thousands of refugees
According to most estimates, Germany accepted 1.1 million new arrivals in 2015 — roughly 1.3% of their entire population.
This means “mum” in German.
Italy’s new populist government
Italy’s government is a coalition of the hard-right League and the anti-establishment Five Star Movement. The interior minister, Matteo Salvini, now arguably the most powerful man in the country, recently announced the closure of Italian ports to all boats carrying migrants.
Hungarian leader Viktor Orbán recently passed a law making it illegal to help illegal immigrants.
Levels of support
In Hungary, the governing Fidesz party won 49% of the vote in this year’s election, while the Law and Justice party in Poland is currently polling at around the low 40s.
The 31-year-old leader of Austria, Sebastian Kurz, has also called for more effective control of the EU’s external borders.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.