The leader of the German Christian Social Union Party (CSU) Horst Seehofer and Prime Minister of Hungary Viktor Orban CHRISTOF STACHE/AFP/Getty Images

Are Europe’s Populists Calling the Shots?

Less than six months after forming another grand coalition government, German Chancellor Angela Merkel is now fighting for her political life against a pan-European alliance of anti-immigration forces. But whether or not she holds on to power, it is already clear that Germany's unique influence over EU affairs is waning.

BERLIN – In 2011, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was forced from office by French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and replaced by Mario Monti, an able technocrat who looked like he had been designed in a laboratory by the European Commission and Goldman Sachs.

But now the boot is on the other foot. An extraordinary populist coalition comprising Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, Italian Minister of the Interior Matteo Salvini, and German Federal Minister of the Interior Horst Seehofer is threating to oust Merkel over her migration policies.

In an attempt to shore up her position, Merkel recently held a summit with French President Emmanuel Macron at Meseberg Castle outside of Berlin, where she agreed to a European Union reform agenda that would seem to go beyond most Europhiles’ wildest dreams.

But the Meseberg summit itself looked more like a Franco-German conclave than a relaunch of the European project. Macron is trying to protect Merkel from the rebellious forces within her own governing coalition, and both leaders are acting like they are still the masters of the universe. Yet for all their talk of transforming the European Stability Mechanism into a European Monetary Fund and reining in the Italian government’s behavior on refugees, one gets the sense that it is the populists who are calling the shots.

The era when Germany could resolve European crises by effectively making domestic political decisions for other member states seems to have ended. In the current standoff, it is Merkel’s Germany that is now the spielball (“playing ball”). Decisions that may determine the fate of her government are being made in Rome, Sofia, and other capitals on the European Union’s periphery.

This shifting balance of power is most evident in Merkel’s eagerness to meet with Orbán at an EU summit in early July, just three months after she refused to congratulate him on his reelection. Since then, several factors have changed the state of play in European politics.

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For starters, Seehofer’s Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party to Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, is preparing to fend off the far-right Alternative für Deutschland in regional elections this October. The CSU regularly hosts Orbán at its party meetings, and he and Seehofer have been in close contact throughout the refugee crisis.

Second, Kurz, in a coalition with the populist Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), recently declared that overhauling EU migration policies would be a top priority for Austria during its presidency of the Council of the European Union. And, third, in early June, Italy’s Five Star Movement and Salvini’s right-wing League party formed a government that combined two very different strands of populism. In doing so, they have created a template for left-wing anti-austerity populists and right-wing anti-immigration populists to forge similar alliances in other member states – including Germany.

As interior minister, Salvini has taken a hard line on migration, not least by turning away vessels carrying asylum seekers rescued from the Mediterranean. And his approach is inspiring Seehofer and Kurz – ever the opportunists – to double down on their own immigration proposals.

As Germany’s interior minister, Seehofer wants to start turning away asylum seekers who have already registered in other member states. This has pitted him against Merkel, who would prefer to forge an EU-level agreement to fix Europe’s asylum system.

Earlier this month, just as Merkel and Seehofer’s dispute was heating up, Kurz made an appearance in Berlin, where he called for Austria, Hungary, Italy, and Germany – or, at least, Germany’s interior ministry – to form an “axis of the willing” on migration. Kurz also tried to undercut Merkel in early 2016, when he was serving as Austria’s foreign minister. Appearing on live German television, he declared that he would close the Balkan route for refugees fleeing Syria for Northern Europe.

Merkel was able to fend off this earlier attempt at domestic interference. But today, both Europe and Germany’s divisions have widened, and she must find a way to bridge the gaps. For example, while Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte has doubled down on his opposition to a eurozone “transfer union,” Merkel has agreed, in principle, to Macron’s proposal for a joint eurozone budget.

Yet Germany is caught in the middle of the “fiscally responsible” Hanseatic League (Northern Europe), the anti-immigration Visegrád Group (the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia), and anti-austerity forces in the southern eurozone. In an earlier era, a strong, visionary chancellor could have exploited the fact that these different currents are all present on the German political scene. In fact, after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, Merkel herself was able to forge domestic compromises that worked for the entire continent.

But the key difference between then and now is that the US government no longer has an interest in a strong, united Europe – or in global stability, for that matter. After the annexation of Crimea, Merkel could count on then-US President Barack Obama’s support. The same cannot be said for President Donald Trump or Richard Grenell, his chosen ambassador to Germany, both of whom are actively undermining Merkel’s domestic credibility.

Of course, Merkel cannot be written off yet. After 13 years in power, she has shown herself to be extraordinarily resilient and capable of facing down ambitious macho men. Seehofer, Kurz, Salvini, Orbán, and Trump would all do well not to underestimate her.

Still, Europe is at a critical juncture. Those who favor deeper integration and openness have wasted a lot of time, while populists and nationalists have marshaled their forces. After their summit at Meseberg Castle, one can only wonder if Macron and Merkel are ready for an extended siege.;

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