The Slatest

It Sure Looks Like Donald Trump Is Trying to Take Down Angela Merkel

Angela Merkel looks at Donald Trump as he stares ahead smiling.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and U.S. President Donald Trump during the G-7 summit in La Malbaie, Quebec, on June 8.
Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

With his administration under fire for its draconian border policies, President Donald Trump decided Monday morning to wade into another country’s immigration debate, tweeting, “The people of Germany are turning against their leadership as migration is rocking the already tenuous Berlin coalition. Crime in Germany is way up. Big mistake made all over Europe in allowing millions of people in who have so strongly and violently changed their culture!” He then added, “We don’t want what is happening with immigration in Europe to happen with us!”

The first thing to note about this is that it’s wrong. Germany’s crime rate was at its lowest last year since 1992, with dramatic reductions in burglaries and youth-related violence. However, a number of high-profile crimes, including the rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl by an Iraqi asylum-seeker last month and the 2016 terrorist attack on a Christmas market in Berlin, have stoked opposition to the government’s migration policies.

The political crisis Trump refers to, however, is real and quite serious, though it had shown some signs of abating on the same day he started tweeting. The root of the crisis is a dispute between Chancellor Angela Merkel and Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, who is also the leader of the Christian Social Union, the more conservative Bavarian sister party of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union. Seehofer has been a critic of Merkel’s migration policies since 2015, when she opened Germany’s borders to asylum-seekers and nearly 900,000 entered the country. (Numbers are down significantly since then.) The majority of migrants enter Germany through Bavaria, on the southern border with Austria.

Seehofer has vowed to introduce police controls on the southern border and turn refugees away if they have already applied for asylum in other EU countries. Merkel has rejected his proposal, arguing that unilateral border controls would violate EU rules and place increasing pressure on countries like Greece and Italy that, for geographic reasons, have borne the brunt of the migrant influx. If Seehofer institutes his plan, Merkel will have little choice but to fire him. That would likely lead to the collapse of the fragile coalition government, which took nearly six months to form. It would also most likely be the end of the line for Merkel, the longest-serving head of government in the EU.

On Monday, Seehofer agreed to put his plan on hold, giving Merkel two weeks to work out a deal with other EU countries to further limit immigration. Merkel has had close calls before, and it’s quite possible the two sides will iron out a compromise that keeps the coalition together, but the underlying tensions aren’t going away. While Merkel defends the status quo, Seehofer—whose CSU is facing a strong challenge from the far-right Alternative for Germany in upcoming state elections—has moved to associate himself with Europe’s insurgent populists. He hosted Hungary’s authoritarian leader Viktor Orbán at a party in January. Last week, he and Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, whose coalition includes the far-right Freedom Party, announced their support for an “axis of the willing” of Germany, Austria, and Italy to tackle illegal migration—an unfortunate name given the countries involved.

The U.S. is more or less part of that axis as well. The U.S. ambassador to Berlin, Richard Grenell, angered many Germans this month when he said in an interview that he wanted to “empower other conservatives” throughout Europe and dubbed Kurz a “rock star.” Grenell and the U.S. State Department denied that this was a statement of support for any particular German political party, but it’s hard to argue that Trump’s tweet Monday was anything other than a political attack on Merkel, whose “insane” immigration policies the president has repeatedly used as a foil. It’s also interesting that Trump’s latest statement comes just three days after he tweeted that he has a “great relationship” with Merkel and that the “Fake News Media” had made up the tension between them. If nothing else, Trump’s tweet Monday, which appears to endorse of the arguments of those trying to unseat Merkel, isn’t going to help that relationship.

Germany and the U.S. are very different countries, and few parallels can be drawn between their migration experiences over the past few years, but there may be some lessons for America in its current political crisis. While Germany doesn’t do anything as drastic as separating migrants from their children at the border—no democratic country does—it has had a fierce debate over the past few years on the question of family reunification, whether people who’d been granted asylum or refugee status should be able to bring immediate family members to Germany with them. A law passed in 2016 and supported by Merkel suspended family reunification for refugees with limited protected status. Seehofer’s CSU favors a complete end to family reunification as a means to limit the total number of arrivals, while CSU’s coalition partners in the center-left Social Democratic Party want to end the restrictions and allow reunifications. The issue was a major sticking point early this spring in forming the current German government, though a compromise was hammered out in May.

But family separation can exacerbate many of the difficulties refugees already face in integrating in their new homes. As Vauhini Vara wrote for Foreign Policy in April:

Studies of Sudanese refugees in Australia and of Kosovar Albanian refugees in the U.K. have found that refugees separated from their families experience high rates of mental health conditions, including anxiety and depression. And according to the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), such stress can “inhibit [refugees’] ability to learn a new language, search for a job and adapt to their country of asylum.”

Coming full circle to the main justification used by restrictionists like Trump and Seehofer—concern about crime—a study on immigrant crime in Germany published this year by Swiss researchers made the case that policies enacted to deter asylum-seeking were actually exacerbating criminality, creating large populations of single men unable to get work, living in legal limbo and threatened with deportation, and cut off from relatives. In this situation, the argument that these migrants won’t be able to integrate into their new countries becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.