CAN a politician be prophetic — or is politics merely, to borrow Bismarck’s phrase, “the art of the possible”? This is a question that another German politician, the Chancellor, Angela Merkel, must be pondering this week as she reflects on how her conservative Christian Democratic Union party came to lose a million votes in last weekend’s general election.
The crash in her support seems to be a response to her decision to open Germany’s borders to a million refugees, mostly Muslims, who were fleeing the war in Syria in 2015. Her former supporters defected to the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, which was catapulted from being a protest group to becoming Germany’s third largest party, with more than 90 MPs in the Bundestag.
Until now, Chancellor Merkel has widely been seen as the bulwark of “strong and stable” politics in an era in which populist protest has produced Donald Trump, Brexit, and the rejection of all mainstream parties by the French electorate. The AfD began as a group of conservative intellectuals alarmed at the cash that Germany was spending bailing out Greece during the Eurozone crisis. But then the party become a vehicle for alarm about immigration — although, interestingly, the AfD got its greatest support in areas with fewest immigrants –— and its leaders began flirting with Germany’s Nazi past. Suddenly, Germany no longer seems immune from populist anger.
Yet despite her diminished authority, Mrs Merkel remains the world’s most grown-up politician. This week she said that she had no intention of resiling from her policy on refugees, and said that there would be no annual upper limit on asylum-seekers. No doubt the world’s religious leaders — including Pope Francis, who was praised her warmly in the past — will continue to applaud that.
There are, of course, Christians who see other imperatives than the Bible’s injunction to take care of the stranger. The Prime Minister of Hungary, Viktor Orbán, argues for a Europe of nation states which preserve their traditional Christian cultures.
But the German Chancellor is the daughter of a Protestant pastor who grew up in the home of Immanuel Kant’s duty-based ethics. To those who fear the great influx of immigrants, she made an appeal to the Christian imperative to assist strangers, each one of whom is created in the likeness of God. Moreover, she sees this as entirely compatible with her priorities for a globalised economy and flexible labour markets.
Perhaps there was a middle way between her “open door” policy and the AfD’s call for “walls, barbed wire and orders to shoot”. Some have suggested that her government should have set up transit centres on the German border to sort out genuine refugees from economic migrants, but Mrs Merkel eschewed such a middle-ground option. Many voters now seem to have told her that she was wrong, and yet her reply is that she will be reluctant to tack right in response to the election result.
Prophetic stances are, indeed, rare in modern politics. Yet it is names such as those of Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, and Nelson Mandela that history will remember, long after the names of pragmatic politicians are forgotten.