Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Lead Germany, or Lead Europe? Merkel Walks Fine Line on Refugee Crisis

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Lead Germany, or Lead Europe? Merkel Walks Fine Line on Refugee Crisis

Article excerpt

German Chancellor Angela Merkel was hailed worldwide for her bold humanitarianism on Europe's refugee crisis, offering her country as a place of welcome. And now she's helped push through a relocation plan that forces European Union members to share the refugee burden, even though some are bitterly opposed.

As the EU struggles to respond to what's been characterized as the biggest challenge yet to its solidarity, Ms. Merkel has emerged as the bloc's only real leader.

But at home, her leadership is under pressure. Although Germans have widely welcomed refugees, Chancellor Merkel has moved uncharacteristically quickly on this issue. Now she is facing a backlash in her own Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party, as well as increasing questions over her motivations and long-term strategy. And that is highlighting the conflict inherent in her role as leader of both a 28-member bloc and a constituency at home.

"It could develop into a risky moment for her," says Hans-Georg Soeffner, a German sociologist. "If the problems get too complex, if Germany can't cope with it, if we don't solve the refugee problem within our boundaries, this might create a problem for Mrs. Merkel. She will be held responsible."

Lead Europe, or lead Germany?This week the EU took a bold step, forcing a redistribution proposal for 120,000 asylum seekers through by majority vote - instead of consensus. The plan, long backed by Germany, was approved despite fierce opposition from Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia. Romania also opposed it. Finland abstained.

While the refugee issue has polarized Europe, the majority in the bloc have hailed Merkel for finally taking a stand. And many Germans have been equally supportive, rushing to train stations and volunteer stands to help welcome the thousands who have entered Germany in the past month.

But her approach has nonetheless raised questions. Gero Neugebauer, a political scientist at Berlin's Free University, argues that Germany took too long to respond to the situation, and reacted only when it grew to outsize proportions. They "failed to look in the foreseeable future," he says, let alone the "long term."

Christoph Mohni, who works at EineWeltHaus, an intercultural community center in Munich, says that Merkel did not lead on the issue but followed popular sentiment, which has largely embraced Germany's "welcome culture." "She more acted out of political opportunism than out of real conviction that this is the way we have to go," he says.

While it's not unusual for her to track public opinion before she takes a stance, acting spontaneously is rare for Merkel. She has assumed leadership of Europe only reluctantly, and her style, at the European level and home, has almost always been one of caution, gathering information and inching toward decisions. …

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