Germany's Merkel Faces Leadership Challenge, Sparked By Migrant Issue
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, has led her country for nearly 13 years. She has navigated, and so far survived, a euro crisis, a massive influx of migrants from the Middle East and Africa and a global populist wave. Now her tenure might - might - be coming to an end.
She is facing a rebellion sparked by the migration issue. Her interior minister Horst Seehofer has threatened to resign. He wants to see migrants turned back at the German border if they've already registered in another European Union country. Merkel supports a different plan. She wants to work in coordination with those other countries. They are meeting to try to iron out a compromise - a compromise on which Merkel's future depends.
Now here to talk about Merkel's fate and what it could mean for the rest of the world if she falls is Constanze Stelzenmuller. She is with the Brookings Institution, and we have found her today in Berlin. Hey there.
CONSTANZE STELZENMULLER: Hi there.
KELLY: So remind us how we got here. Why is migration the issue that, after all these years, might topple Angela Merkel?
STELZENMULLER: Well, this isn't really about migration, at least not in the sense that this is a current, ongoing critical problem for Germany. Numbers of immigrants to Germany from crisis regions in northern Africa or the Middle East have gone down massively.
KELLY: So you're saying the migration issue in and of itself is, while still a challenge, not as urgent as it was a few years ago.
STELZENMULLER: Absolutely, absolutely.
KELLY: So why are we at this crisis point for Merkel today?
STELZENMULLER: I think it's fair to say that a lot of people in Germany think it's still a big problem. And this has been fueled by the Alternative for Germany, an extreme-right party in Germany that is running hot on an anti-immigration ticket.
But what this is really about for Merkel's political partner is, I think, a generational regime change. So what they're trying to do is ask her to do something impossible for her that would break her coalition and would make her violate European law and, thereby, force her to resign. That's the plan here.
KELLY: Do you see a path for Angela Merkel to survive?
STELZENMULLER: Oh, I actually do. I don't think that her resignation or a vote of no confidence is a given. She has managed to gather much of the Christian Democratic Party, her own party, behind her. Yes, this could still endanger Angela Merkel's position. But right now, she is, I think, looking, to a lot of Germany, like the safer pair of hands.
KELLY: A card she has played for a long time. Aside from her role as chancellor of Germany, on the broader stage, she has been seen as the pillar of NATO, rock of European unity, defender of the liberal world order. Can she continue to play those roles when she faces political crisis at home?
STELZENMULLER: Well, I travel in the rest of Europe a lot, and I think the picture is more mixed than you suggest. She has a lot of friends, but there is now a highly visible and very confident coalition of right-wing governments in Italy and Poland and Hungary who are very open, ferocious critics of hers. And the Italian interior minister, Salvini, has even suggested that Italy ought to build an alt-right coalition across the continent.
KELLY: So you're making my point in a way. If Angela Merkel doesn't serve as the rock and unifier of the European Union, with so many forces that would like to see it torn apart, who does play that role?
STELZENMULLER: Mary Louise, I don't think there is anybody to replace her. And I will say this to you. There are, right now, different narratives of Europe - one that says the European Union is a lesson from the horrors of World War II and the Holocaust. It is an attempt to create a space in which we are all safer and more stable and more prosperous, and that requires us to interact with the world.
Then there is another version, that of the populist and of the alternative-right governments in Europe, which says, no, the only way to survive in a world that is full of strife is to turn ourselves into a fortress Europe.
And I still think, and many Europeans still think, that Angela Merkel represents a system of a rules-based Europe and an open Europe. And I say that despite all the justifiable criticism that one can have of some of her policies.
KELLY: That's Constanze Stelzenmuller with the Brookings Institution speaking to us via Skype from Berlin. Thank you.
STELZENMULLER: You're very welcome. It was a pleasure to be on.
KELLY: And an update to that story. Just moments ago, the German interior minister announced that the cabinet has reached a compromise on migration. More details on that and what may happen next in Germany as they become available. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.