Opinion: Europe rises and falls with Merkel

There’s an old German saying that seems to have been forgotten in Berlin and Munich: If a donkey’s feeling too comfy, he’ll start dancing on ice.

It is indeed the duty of functionaries of the governing parties to let Angela Merkel know in no uncertain terms if her actions will provoke resentment or protest. No other issue in her time in office has so far affected Germans so directly as the refugee crisis. And since Germans hate chaos, calls for the government to reestablish some sort of control have been growing louder throughout the country.

But in this situation, letting loose a debate about a possible revolt against the chancellor is reckless and extremely dangerous – and that is true far beyond Germany.

Nobody home in Europe

In fact, Angela Merkel is currently indispensible in Europe. That’s not necessarily due to the merits of her leadership abilities, but instead because there are no longer any politicians in the EU who are willing or able to stand up for the European project. The British have turned away from the EU for quite some time, even if they will only decide the year after next whether to withdraw formally.

Chancellor Merkel with UK PM David Cameron and French President Francois Hollande

France’s Francois Hollande remains a weak president who can’t risk supporting Merkel on the refugee issue. He fears the rise of the nationalist conservative National Front and is thus symptomatic of what afflicts other European neighbors: In Austria, Sweden, Finland and Denmark, right-wing populists are gaining ground and are putting the current government coalitions under pressure.

Spain holds elections at Christmas; Portugal’s government lacks a majority; in Italy, Matteo Renzi is having to manage the arriving refugees, but otherwise treats them as a problem for Germany. Greece is still not capable of solving its own problems and is consistently and willfully failing to deal with the stream of refugees from Turkey.

A look to Eastern Europe further chills the blood: In Poland, the conservative nationalists have just come to power after leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski launched into a tirade against migrants from the Middle East that would shame even a neo-fascist.

Everything that needs to be said about Hungary’s would-be dictator Viktor Orban has been said – with his barbed-wire fences and guard dogs, he now serves as a model for populists – and not only in Bavaria. Czechs and Slovaks, Serbs, Croats, Bulgarians – wherever you look, hardly anyone wants to take responsibility for the number of refugees that would be assigned to their country in a fair European distribution.

The EU establishment’s last hope

Everywhere in Europe, nationalism and selfishness are in the ascendant. No one seems to think about what the collapse of the EU would mean for each of these countries: What an economic disaster, what a fall in the international importance of Danes and Poles, Italians and also Britons, if they laid bombs beneath united Europe.

And never mind the Eastern Europeans who would have to give up the billions in structural aid from the EU budget as well as free trade and border traffic with their richer neighbors. Apparently, no one really believes that this danger really exists, because in many capitals, the rulers behave like children playing with fire.

Loud wailing about the state of the European Union has long been par for the course in Brussels. But at present this analysis hardly seems an exaggeration: The most difficult test of European cohesion since World War II has foundered on the weakness of the dramatis personae and the fragmentation and polarization of the political landscape.

Angela Merkel is the last pillar of strength left standing. She has recognized the global dimension of the refugee crisis, while others still believe that they can keep the problem at bay with barbed wire.

The chancellor is now the only one who can lead the EU through the greatest cultural and social challenge since its inception. If she fails – both at home in Germany and in the circle of 28 in Brussels – then Europe also fails.

For the governing parties in Berlin this means now is the time to strengthen Merkel’s back. Instead, talk of the chancellor’s twilight is a dangerous game.

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