“My damn duty and obligation consists of finding a collective way for this Europe [to address the crisis]” Merkel told presenter Anne Will in her second appearance on the Sunday night talk show in five months.
While she admitted to being pressed hard on some issues – “you at least haven’t given me an easy time of it,” she told Will at the close of the conversation – the Chancellor appeared much more relaxed and confident than during her last live interview in October.
When Merkel was confronted with the angry mobs that have opposed refugees arriving in their towns and even abetted arson against asylum housing in recent weeks, she reminded viewers of the German Constitution’s most sacred principle that “human dignity is inviolable”.
“These are citizens who are doing something that I deeply reject,” she said – although she was happy to discuss people’s fears if they remained peaceful and were prepared to listen.
That earned her strong applause from the studio audience.
Isolated in Europe?
The response from the public was weaker when discussing the actual measures Germany is taking to reduce the numbers of refugees arriving.
Merkel stuck to her well-rehearsed plan: European nations should work together with Turkey to secure their collective external borders, allowing them to uphold the Schengen free-movement area despite some nations’ fears of migrants.
Meanwhile, by improving conditions in refugee camps outside Syria’s borders and deploying all the West’s diplomatic strength to bring about a ceasefire in the war-torn country, the Chancellor hopes to reduce the numbers of people starting on the long trail towards Europe.
“This may all be going too slowly for some people,” she said, but “belief can move mountains”.
“I am firmly convinced that the path I have started down is the right one,” she went on.
What about Austria?
But she had little new to say to Will when the journalist confronted her with Austria and the western Balkan nations’ decision last week to close their borders – in apparent contradiction of what was agreed at the last European summit on February 18th.
That’s left thousands of migrants stranded in Greece – the first point where most refugees fleeing through Turkey set foot on European soil – which is already struggling under the numbers arriving.
“This is exactly what I’m afraid of,” Merkel said. “If one person sets his border, the other has to suffer. That is not my Europe.”
“We can’t leave [Greece] in the lurch,” she added, especially after so much effort had been expended to keep the Hellenic Republic in the Euro single currency last year.
European leaders will gather again on March 7th in Turkey for further talks, she said, in an extraordinary summit brought forward from the planned next meeting on March 18th.
She will be hoping that there are more signs of progress – even small – that she can bring back to her people next week.
But even so, neither slow progress nor a bad result for her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) at upcoming regional elections will turn the Chancellor aside.
“I don’t see anything that could cause [my policy to fail], because everything has been thought through and is logical. No-one doubts this logic,” she said.
“Even [Bavarian state premier and outspoken critic of the refugee policy] Horst Seehofer says ‘I wish you success on this path’.
“Unfortunately, some people just don’t believe in it.”
Little new to say
Merkel’s latest TV appearance, although stronger than her last, will have done little to shift the political battle lines at home in Germany.
As well as the rising popularity of right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD), which has called for borders to be closed immediately and for guards to use lethal force if necessary, she faces increasing anger from the ranks of her own CDU at her refugee policy’s impact on their electoral chances.
But she appears happy to suffer that blow if it buys her time to implement a policy she sees as the only one which will fulfil Germany’s – and Europe’s – moral obligations and save key parts of the European project, such as free movement.
Many German journalists were impressed with her performance on Sunday, with Der Spiegel’s deputy foreign editor Mathieu von Rohr saying she “put up a great fight”.