Depends on how you define your terms, but you could say that the protagonists – the leaders, if you will – of the European migration crisis are the migrants themselves. They in any case are driving the action, while Europe’s ostensible leaders, its chancellors, presidents and prime ministers, are being forced to follow. The former, the migrants, have been proactive. The latter, the leaders, have been reactive.
This conundrum – this vivid evidence of how leaders and followers are fungible – is nowhere so much in evidence as in the person of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Until recently Merkel was without question the most admired political leader in Europe – arguably in the rest of the world as well. Widely esteemed during her nearly ten years at the helm, Merkel controlled not only growing Germany itself, but most of fragile and fragmented Europe as well. During every one of Europe’s recent crises – from Greece to Ukraine – she was able to quell the sense the situation was spiraling out of control. Each time she was able to walk a fine line between the different sides, holding the whole together.
Now, in the space of just a few weeks, the worm seems to have turned. At a minimum, Merkel’s ability to keep the lid on, to manage the migrant crisis, is being thrown into question. Interestingly, importantly, questions are being raised not so much outside Germany, as inside it. Merkel’s open door policy – her pledge to admit into Germany in a short period of time dauntingly large numbers of mostly Syrian refugees – is being challenged above all by members of her own Christian Democratic party. While it is tempting to situate Germany’s Christian Democrats in the larger context of Europe’s right wing – which in recent years has grown steadily more nationalistic and xenophobic – the reality is more complex. For the numbers, especially with no obvious solution to the crisis in sight, seem to a growing German minority overwhelming. Approximately 10,000 asylum seekers continue to arrive in Germany each day. This year alone the flow into this single nation of some 80 million will exceed one million, with many more sure to arrive in 2016. Warned the liberal mayor of Tubingen, Boris Palmer, “If it continues, we’ll have 3.65 million more people in Germany in the next 12 months. I’m sorry, we cannot make that happen. The government must act, otherwise… social order will implode.”*
The irony of Merkel’s situation is that it is so unaccustomed. By opening the door as wide as she has to mainly Middle Eastern migrants, the Chancellor is in danger of squandering what has been her strongest political asset – her level of control of her person, and of the situation. This time though – motivated or moved by a humanitarian crisis – this most careful of politicians has thrown caution to the winds. For if even one thing goes wrong – say a single recent migrant endangers the public safety – the price Merkel will pay for deviating from her past pattern is likely to be high. And if she shakes, Europe will not only rattle, it will roil.
*Quoted in, Stefan Wagstyl, “Merkel Opens Door to Her Opponents,” Financial Times, October 28, 2015.