BERLIN/STRASBOURG, FRANCE – There is a word for the relief many across Germany must have felt as Chancellor Angela Merkel missed out on a Nobel Prize for her stance on refugees: Schadenfreude.
The bookmakers’ favorite to pick up the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday, Merkel lost out to a group dedicated to building democracy in Tunisia. The award saves her detractors the discomfort of seeing international honor bestowed on the chancellor for an open-door policy that is causing a storm at home, alienating political allies and a skeptical public.
Merkel’s approval ratings, already in decline after this year’s standoff with Greece, have plunged by a third since April to the lowest in almost four years. With her coalition partners openly querying her stance, Merkel looks to have lost her sure political touch, and has begun to attract comparisons with her predecessor, Gerhard Schroeder.
He also took on his party and pushed through a socially divisive overhaul that was credited with turning the German economy around, only to be voted out for his troubles.
“For the first time, Merkel doesn’t care about the polls,” said Andrea Roemmele, a political scientist at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin. “It’s about her chancellorship, it’s about her legacy.”
Having grown into Europe’s dominant leader over her decade in power, Merkel is testing the limits of public acceptance by rejecting calls to seal the border and saying Germany needs to set an example.
The chancellor sees no alternative, won’t reverse course and accepts declining approval ratings as the price to pay, according to a person with direct knowledge of her views who asked not to be named. She is staking her political future on it, the person said.
With Volkswagen AG embroiled in an emission-cheating scandal, Deutsche Bank AG posting its biggest quarterly loss in at least a decade and German exports declining the most since 2009, Merkel also faces growing economic headwinds as she tells Germans the country can handle 800,000 or more refugees this year.
“This is by far the biggest challenge during her chancellorship,” said Jan Techau, director of Carnegie Europe in Brussels. Merkel “clearly underestimated the pressure posed by the refugee crisis” and is pursuing a policy “which drives large parts of her party up the wall,” he said. “She’s risking a lot.”
By taking a stand based on humanitarian principles, Merkel is departing from the cautious, coalition-building approach that has served her well at home and in Europe. This time, she said in an hourlong interview on national television, her call for Germans to present “a friendly face” to the world’s refugees comes “from the heart.”
The Lutheran pastor’s daughter also draws a parallel with the changes that swept Europe after the Cold War and dealing with the stream of refugees from war-torn countries such as Syria. Closing borders in Europe might sound like the answer, but is unrealistic — Merkel is not willing to build another wall in Europe, the person familiar with her thinking said.
Critics say Merkel is ignoring the day-to-day strains on ordinary Germans, the challenge of integrating Muslims and the risk of a political backlash in Germany, where no anti-immigrant party sits in the national parliament.
Warnings have come from Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere, a Merkel confidant who is the top federal law-and-order official, and Joachim Gauck, the nation’s president, said the country’s ability to absorb refugees is limited. Merkel’s Social Democrat coalition partner is pressing her for stronger measures, including a cap on arrivals.
Schroeder, the last Social Democratic chancellor, fell a decade ago after sections of his party revolted against labor and welfare reforms he pushed through to combat record unemployment. A senior party member, who remembers those days and asked not to be named, said Merkel is now facing her “Schroeder moment.”
Winning the Nobel Prize might have strengthened Merkel’s hand against her nominal party allies in Bavaria, who are pressing for a migration cap after refugees flooded the state this summer.
“There would have been a lot of popular support of Angela Merkel,” making it “extremely difficult” for Bavaria to buck her, Roemmele said. At the same time, “we would have had even more refugees coming,” she said.
Bavaria state Premier Horst Seehofer threatened Friday to challenge Merkel’s policy in Germany’s Supreme Court, saying “migration must be controlled and limited.”
Party polls suggest Merkel’s hold on power is safe for now and, in any case, she has no obvious successor pushing at her back. And she has seen worse: her approval rating was lower in 2010 during the height of the debt crisis that spread from Greece, and then again in 2011 when she reversed her stance on nuclear power following the Fukushima disaster.
What is more, Germany’s first female chancellor and its first from the former communist east has made a career out of being underestimated.
All Merkel can do now is stay the course, said Manfred Guellner, head of Berlin-based pollster Forsa.
Support for her party bloc declined to 39 percent in last week’s Forsa poll compared with 43 percent as recently as August, and Merkel’s approval rating fell 2 percentage points from a week earlier to 47 percent. It was 75 percent in April.
“There have been many phases in her chancellorship where she was below 40 percent,” Guellner said by phone. “The biggest mistake Merkel could do right now would be to change her policy. That would be seen as opportunistic.”