Analysis/Angela Merkel Is Losing to the Orban-Trump-Netanyahu Camp هآررتس: ميركل تخسر في مواجهة فريق اوربان وترامب ونيتانياهو Anshel Pfeffer/Haaretz/June 29/18
Merkel has gone from leader of Europe to near isolation – and the EU summit now taking place may be her last chance to stop the forces of illiberal democracy.
In the joint press conference during Benjamin Netanyahu’s fleeting visit to Berlin three weeks ago, the prime minister warned about Iran’s actions in Syria. One of the implications, he said, could be another wave of Syrian refugees arriving in Europe.
“And we all know where they will come to,” he added. Standing beside him, Chancellor Angela Merkel looked even more mournful than usual. Netanyahu had hit her weakest spot, and he had learned to do so from his best European friend – who’s due to arrive in Israel next month.
Over the last few years, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has been waging a war of attrition against Merkel over Europe’s future. It may sound absurd that a modest-sized country with economic problems is taking on Europe’s superpower. But based on events in recent weeks, Orban looks like he’s winning – mainly thanks to the immigration issue.
This weekend they’ll both be at the European Union Leaders Summit in Brussels. The desperate attempt to agree on an EU-wide solution to the immigration crisis is at the top of the agenda.
Orban, arriving in Brussels, was forthright. “The invasion should be stopped,” he said of the refugees at the Continent’s borders, “and to stop the invasion means to have strong border control, and we have that.”
Merkel, in a speech in Berlin before leaving, sounded almost apologetic. “Our decision to open doors to refugees in 2015 was not unilateral,” she said. “We acted to help Austria and Hungary.”
Merkel and Orban were both born and raised under Communist regimes. After the fall of the Iron Curtain, they both learned the rules of democracy and became all-powerful leaders of their countries.
This is where the resemblances end. The apolitical Merkel who swiftly reached the leadership of the conservative CDU party is now seen as the last guarantor of the post-Cold War liberal world order. Orban, who burst onto the public scene in Hungary as an anti-Communist activist, is the standard-bearer of “illiberal democracy,” a term he invoked in a speech in 2014.
Mr. Inside and Mr. Outside
George Soros, the Hungarian-American financier now the most hated man in Orban’s Hungary, said in 2016 that Orban is “challenging Merkel for the leadership of Europe.” According to Soros, the Hungarian prime minister “attacks the values and principles on which the European Union was founded. Orban attacks them from the inside, [Vladimir] Putin from the outside.”
It was a showdown that Merkel, backed up by Germany’s economic might and a near consensus among EU leaders, was winning. In early 2015, she visited Budapest and forced Orban to cancel a tax his government had levied on German companies. But two weeks later, the Russian president visited Budapest as well, and Merkel should have read the signs. She was about to make a series of decisions that would lead to her current predicament.
Throughout 2015, she led the EU’s tough line against the cash-strapped Syriza government in Greece. Merkel insisted on severe austerity measures in return for a bailout. She broke Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, despite the referendum in which a large majority of Greek voters rejected the EU’s terms.
The price was bolstering her domineering and coercive image, and that of the EU. A year later, things would end very differently in another referendum.
But before that, Merkel would make another fateful decision – in September 2015, when she decided that Germany would open its borders and welcome the stream of Syrian refugees crossing the Aegean from Turkey to Greece. Despite the Dublin Treaty that stipulates that refugees will be processed in the EU member state where they first arrive, she agreed to accept the over 1 million refugees who were reaching Greece and from there crossing the Balkans into Hungary and Austria.
Merkel had sown the seeds of the current crisis and would begin to counter growing opposition from other EU members who were asked to take in a quota of refugees.
In 2016, in a series of meetings with British Prime Minister David Cameron, Merkel refused to grant any concessions on the EU’s freedom-of-movement principle for immigrants. Without her support, Cameron had no chance with the EU, and though he continued to support remaining in the union, immigration was to become a main issue used by Brexit-supporters, motivating 52 percent of British voters to support leaving on June 23.
Brexit was to be the wind in Donald Trump’s sails, who five months later promised his supporters on Election Day a “Brexit-plus-plus.” With Trump’s surprising election, Merkel had two alternatives. She could swallow her pride and try to embrace the vainglorious president, or stand for her principles. She chose the second option and won glowing headlines as “the new leader of the free world.” But she also began to lose supporters in Europe.
The three other members of the Visegrad Group – Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia – rallied to Orban, as did Bulgaria and then Austria under its new right-wing-populist government, which has taken a much tougher line on immigration. The most damaging blow was to come last month when Italy’s new populist government began blocking boats from Libya carrying immigrants. But the greatest danger lay at home.
Orban has long been building his relations with the CDU’s sister party, Bavaria’s CSU, and especially its leader, Horst Seehofer. The more conservative and wealthy Bavarians were much less excited by Merkel’s friendly welcome to the refugees thronging in their thousands at Munich’s main train station. Seehofer, who has hosted Orban at CSU meetings where Merkel’s immigration policy has been criticized, is now demanding that Germany block at its borders refugees who have passed through other EU countries.
Merkel refuses to budge, and this weekend’s summit is her last chance to try to deliver a new EU policy that will not only gain the support of the other member states but also placate the CSU. She’s on the brink of losing the party necessary for her tenuous majority
In the Bundestag.
In three years, Merkel has gone from leader of Europe to being almost isolated. Even French President Emmanuel Macron, nominally her ally, has been discreetly distancing himself. The photograph of Merkel at this month’s G-7 summit confronting Trump made liberal hearts soar across the Western world, but it also underlined how the West is now divided into two camps. And the Orban-Trump-Netanyahu camp is swiftly gaining ground.