Angela Merkel really is the most consequential politician of modern Europe, but lately not in the way she hopes. Her 2015 decision to welcome over 1 million migrants into her country, and then her attempts to impose refugee quotas across the European Union, have altered the politics of Europe for a generation.
The latest of the run on-effects of this decision is now in Austria. The 31-year-old leader of the People’s Party, Sebastian Kurz, will soon be chancellor of Austria, after the smashing success of his insurgent campaign, which renovated the party. Kurz won by promising “something new” in politics. That something new includes a position on immigration that is arguably harder than the one offered by the far-right Freedom Party, a group with some roots in fascist politics and the likely coalition partner of Kurz’s party. Kurz talks openly of working with or joining the Visgrád Group, the four countries of central Europe that have rejected Merkel’s migration quotas.
The migration flow created after the 2015 “welcome” were used by terrorists involved in the Bataclan massacre in Paris and in the Brussels airport bombing. The sudden security problem overwhelmed and essentially ended the Schengen arrangements that allowed free travel between many European countries. Thus began a race of border reinforcements. In mid 2015, Hungary closed its border to Serbia. The weeks afterward saw Bulgaria build a fence along its border with Turkey. Then Austria closed its border to Hungary, and Hungary closed its border to Austria. Germany temporarily closed to Austria. Weeks later, Slovenia began building a wall on its Croatian border. These are Merkel’s walls.
There has been a serious price at home. Merkel’s entire political calculus had always assumed that Germany’s ugly 20th-century history meant that there never could be a serious right-wing challenge to the center-right Christian Democratic parties. That turned out to be wrong. The right-populist Alternative for Germany helped bring Merkel’s CDU to its worst electoral performance in seven decades. Merkel’s constant attempts at triangulating to her left have also severely weakened the morale and performance of the Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party to the CDU. To her credit, she has recognized the potential for disaster. And she quickly negotiated an ugly deal with Turkey to close the refugee flow coming over land from the Middle East.
Leif-Erik Holm, one of the more moderate voices in Alternative for Germany, also placed the blame for Brexit on her doorstep. “Angela Merkel opened the borders and the British realized in that moment that ‘hang on, we are not in control of our country’ and decided for Brexit because of this,” he said in an interview earlier this year.
In fact, Holm is understating Merkel’s role. Because it was Merkel who played the hardliner with U.K. prime minister David Cameron ahead of Brexit. He went to Brussels to get some compromise deal on “freedom of movement” ahead of the talks, trying to assuage the No. 1 concern of the British public. Merkel gave him no concessions at all, just months after she had initiated this wave of migration not only from Syria but from Eritrea and sub-Saharan Africa.
And all of this leaves out the way Merkel’s invitation became a boon for human smuggling operations in Niger and Libya. Her great humanitarian gesture had the nasty underside that we see in the horrific details from migrant camps in North Africa.
Merkel has practiced what Business Insider’s Josh Barro calls “no-choice politics.” During the euro crisis, she relied on there being no choice to exit the currency union. During the run-up to Brexit, she relied on the fact that Cameron had no choice but to argue for Remain, no matter how little she offered. She relied on there being no choice to her right in Germany. It hasn’t worked.
Merkel took responsibility for Europe over the last decade. And Brexit, her party’s diminished majority, the border walls rising, and the advent of populist alternatives are her legacy.