To people (like me) who have gotten used to hearing the same catch-phrases from Angela Merkel in speech after speech, her appearance on Monday was a surprise — perhaps one of the biggest since she became chancellor 11 years ago. Leaders don’t like to admit mistakes. But Merkel not only took responsibility for the poor performance of her CDU in an election in the city-state of Berlin, she also conceded that she would have handled the refugee challenge differently if she could go back in time. She was not apologizing for opening German borders a year ago. That would have been a step too far. But she was admitting that she failed to heed warning signs that a wave of refugees was building and to act early enough to counter or control it. She told her audience that she was ditching her signature phrase “wir schaffen das” (we can do this) because some people viewed it as a provocation. Her body language was different. She read from a prepared speech for nearly 12 minutes. This was a carefully orchestrated mea culpa.
Why? For one, Merkel was under mounting pressure within her own party to change the way she communicated about the refugee issue. One CDU official described her rhetoric in the refugee crisis as “technocratic”. “It’s a language people don’t understand,” he said. This had to be corrected and Monday was a first attempt to do so. It was also the clearest attempt yet to reach out to her Bavarian sister party, the CSU, and its leader Horst Seehofer, who has been attacking Merkel and her refugee stance publicly for a year now. While her aides seethed, Merkel responded to Seehofer with the political equivalent of Muhammad Ali’s rope-a-dope. She hunkered down and took the blows, hoping Seehofer – like George Foreman in Kinshasa – would punch himself out. But the attacks have not stopped and time is running out. In December, Merkel must say whether she plans to run for a fourth term in 2017. In order to run, she needs the CSU on board.
What happens next? One official familiar with the chancellor’s thinking told me that the standoff between Merkel and the CSU must be resolved “within the next few weeks”. The CDU and CSU are holding half a dozen policy-focused meetings over the next 6 weeks — an attempt to agree on common themes for the looming election. In early November, the CSU will hold its annual party congress. The fight must end if Merkel is to attend. The official made clear that the chancellor’s overture on Monday amounted to a final offer to the CSU. “She went quite far. She reached out to her critics. But there are limits. She can’t go any further,” the official said. Merkel will not bow to pressure to introduce a numerical cap — Seehofer has proposed 200,000 — on the number of refugees Germany lets in each year. That would be political suicide.
Does Merkel want to run again? Guenter Bannas, a veteran reporter with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, wrote last week that she may not. But her appearance on Monday suggested otherwise. And a second German official who is close to her also told me on Tuesday that it should be clear to everyone by now that she wants another term. “It would be irresponsible for her to throw in the towel now. She has an obligation as leader of her party. She will do it again. I would bet money on this.”
Still, it may be too early to consider this a fait accompli. There may not be any obvious alternatives to Merkel in her CDU. But because she is so closely tied to the refugee influx in the minds of voters, she is especially vulnerable to events on the ground over the coming months. More attacks with a link to refugees, a repeat of the assaults in Cologne on New Year’s Eve or an acceleration of migrant flows into Europe could scupper her plans. Still, after her mea culpa on Monday, the chances that Merkel makes peace with her Bavarian partners and runs again have, if anything, increased.