In a rare show of regret, Angela Merkel admits she lost control of Germany’s refugee crisis

If I could turn back time…
If I could turn back time…
Image: Reuters/Fabrizio Bensch
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Germany’s taciturn chancellor surprised the country this week with an uncharacteristically frank speech apologizing for her handling of the refugee crisis. Angela Merkel’s contrite comments came after her party suffered dismal results in state elections this month, losing support to the upstart anti-immigrant party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD).

In a 20-minute press conference yesterday (Sept. 19), the chastened chancellor said her government made mistakes in its refugee policy over the past 18 months. More than a million migrants came to Germany last year, five times more than the year before, boosted by the country’s open-door policy for refugees from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and other war-torn countries.

“For some time, we didn’t have enough control,” Merkel said. “No one wants a repeat of last year’s situation, including me.”

She also expressed regret for her go-to mantra over the past year, “we can manage this” (“wir shaffen das”). She said she didn’t want to use it any more as it was a “simple slogan, an empty formula.” She acknowledged that some people felt “provoked by this sentence, and that was never the aim.”

While many took her speech as an apology for her open-door refugee policy, this was not the case. Merkel’s words were nuanced and her fighting spirit clear. She didn’t apologize for her decision to open the borders to refugees last year, which she described at the time as “doing what is morally and legally obliged.” In retrospect, this was “absolutely correct on balance,” Merkel said, in typically measured tones. She did admit, however, that the government could have been better prepared for the influx of asylum seekers.

“If I was able to, I would turn back time by many, many years, so that I could have prepared the whole government and the authorities for the situation which hit us out of the blue in the late summer of 2015,” she said.

Merkel cancelled her trip to the UN General Assembly this week to tackle the growing crisis at home, after her party, the Christian Democrats (CDU), took a drubbing in the Berlin state election on Sunday. Weeks after the party secured only 14% of the vote in Merkel’s home state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, the CDU only managed 18% in Berlin, meaning it may be booted from the governing coalition led by the largest party, the Social Democrats.

It was not only its worst result for the CDU in the capital since the Second World War, but also an indication of how bad things are for Merkel’s party—even the country’s most cosmopolitan city has turned against it. Meanwhile, the right-wing AfD gained seats in the Berlin state parliament for the first time. The anti-immigration AfD now has representatives in 10 of 17 German states.

Merkel is also under immense pressure from supposed allies in the CDU’s sister party, the Christian Social Union. Its leader, Horst Seehofer, an increasingly vocal critic of the chancellor, wants the number of migrants into Germany to be capped at 200,000 a year. Merkel’s self-criticism over her refugee policy went over well with the CSU: “I consider this a highly respectable act,” said deputy leader Christian Schmidt. The Bavarian finance minister, another CSU bigwig, praised it as “a course change.”

The German media have interpreted Merkel’s words as a clear indication (link in German) that she’s going on the offensive a year ahead of the next federal election, sending signals that she will run for a fourth term in 2017. Of course, Merkel didn’t mention that specifically, and likely won’t officially announce her intentions until early next year.

“A new mix of emotion, understanding and fighting spirit. The signal: She won’t be giving up power so quickly,” said Bild, Germany’s biggest tabloid (link in German).