The Corner

Merkel, Faltering?

Writing in the Financial Times, Gideon Rachman discusses what he describes as the ‘unraveling’ of Angela Merkel’s authority. That may be too dramatic a word. As Rachman himself notes, “by the standards of the rest of Europe (or the US), German voters remained pretty steady.” Merkel is not going away any time soon.

Read the full piece (as you should) and you will see Rachman is not unsympathetic to Merkel, but his clever comparison of the different approaches she has taken to the euro and migrant crises is worth pondering:

One way to understand how she has mishandled the refugee issue is to contrast it with her approach to the crisis in the eurozone. When it came to the euro, the chancellor’s approach was defined by a deep concern for public opinion in Germany, an understanding of the threats of moral hazard and unintended consequences, and an ability to find the middle ground between EU countries such as Finland and Greece. Those qualities, combined with Germany’s financial clout, allowed Ms Merkel to emerge as the indispensable leader of Europe.

Ah that word “indispensable”, again. My own view continues to be that, by throwing Germany’s weight behind the preservation of the euro ‘as is’, Merkel did both Europe and her own country a serious disservice, but if your starting point is that the euro had to be defended at all costs, she certainly played a skillful and effective game.

Now let’s turn to the migrant crisis:

Faced with the refugee crisis, however, Ms Merkel adopted a very different, and much less successful, approach. She gambled on the tolerance of the German public. And rather than seeking out the European middle ground, she took a position far to the left of almost all the other EU countries. As a result, the chancellor found herself losing support at home and unable to rally a coalition in Europe. Her position was made worse by the fact that she seemed to have lost her ability to look several moves ahead. She failed to see how Germany’s “welcome culture” would spark a fresh surge of refugees. It is a partial defence of Ms Merkel that, last summer, she was responding, under immense pressure, to a tragic and fast-moving situation. But we are now many months into the crisis and the chancellor still seems too willing to base her policy on comforting illusions rather than uncomfortable facts. In particular, the EU-Turkey deal — in which Turkey agreed to stop the flow of refugees in return for major concessions from Europe — involves incredible leaps of faith.

Perhaps it’s rude to mention that the deal she has proposed may well be illegal.

Writing in The Guardian last week, the relentlessly annoying Guy Verhofstadt, the former Belgian prime minister who heads ALDE, the EU’s pan-European ‘liberal’ grouping, explains:

At the EU-Turkey summit on Monday, the Turkish prime minister, Ahmed Davutoğlu, offered European leaders the illusory “quick fix’’ they sought, in return for a number of concessions. The basic principle of the “one in, one out” deal on offer is that any economic migrant or Syrian refugee trafficked to a Greek island will be forcibly returned to Turkey. For every Syrian sent back to Turkey from Greece, another Syrian would be accepted by EU countries and distributed under a quota scheme. It seems that both the EU and Ankara are willing to take the bait and a deal may be concluded next week, but Europe’s leaders should be careful what they wish for.

There are a number of reasons why this approach is not just immoral, but fundamentally flawed. First, compulsory mass expulsions are, quite rightly, outlawed by the 1951 UN convention on refugees. This treaty has been signed and promoted by the EU. Article 19 of the EU’s own charter of fundamental rights specifically states that “collective expulsions are forbidden”. The UN has already made it clear that mass returns would not be consistent with international law. We know Turkey has an appalling human rights record and a non-functioning asylum system. There is even evidence that Turkey has been forcibly expelling Syrian refugees back into Syria…

Whatever you think about the rights, wrongs and practicalities of all this, there is a very good chance that, legally speaking, Verhofstadt may well be right. In particular the incorporation of these (and related) rights into EU law has the effect of making them far easier to enforce. Anyone who imagines that a deal such as Merkel is proposing will not lead to a series of prolonged legal battles is taking yet another “incredible leap of faith”.

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