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Merkel Stakes Her Career On Germany Welcoming Middle East Migrants


German Chancellor Angela Merkel is Europe's most powerful leader. And she staked her political career on the decision to take an open-arms approach to last year's flood of migrants. She is now up for re-election, launching her campaign at a time when many Germans are growing skeptical that she can pull off what she calls the historic task of making war refugees part of Germany. NPR's Joanna Kakissis is in Berlin and joins us now. Good morning.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: And you've been talking to Germans. And what sort of things are they telling you?

KAKISSIS: Well, you know, you have to remember that Merkel, you know, she's not only powerful but she's been popular. She's one of the most popular leaders in Europe. And she's been in office for more than a decade. Germans trust her. But that may be changing.

Here's one person, Frank Schiefelbein. He's 54, installs telephones and home alarm systems for a living. I met him at the zoo in eastern Berlin. He had the day off and took his 3-year-old grandson Kai there. And, you know, Schiefelbein really worries about Kai, worries that these faraway conflicts in the Middle East are making Germany unsafe.

FRANK SCHIEFELBEIN: (Through interpreter) The world has become scarier and more complicated in the last few years. Situations in countries far away are like volcanoes ready to erupt.

KAKISSIS: Those eruptions could send more migrants fleeing to Europe. He worries that Chancellor Angela Merkel will let them all in just as she did last year.

SCHIEFELBEIN: (Through interpreter) People from Syria, families with children - these people need to be helped, no question. It's outrageous not to help them. But what about those who slipped in with them, those who exploited the chancellor's open door policy? People are afraid. They're worried about crime. Women are worried about being harassed on the street.

KAKISSIS: Schiefelbein frowns. He's a law-and-order conservative who's been voting for the Christian Democratic Union, Merkel's party, as long as he can remember. And Merkel was his kind of chancellor - a pastor's daughter with the deliberate, problem-solving mind of the chemist she was trained to be.

SCHIEFELBEIN: (Speaking German).

KAKISSIS: Now he worries she was actually gullible about migrants, especially after two recent attacks by asylum-seekers. But at a press conference last month, after the attacks, Merkel reiterated her support for welcoming refugees.


CHANCELLOR ANGELA MERKEL: (Through interpreter) I am as convinced as ever that we can do it. We can fulfill our historic task in this time of globalization. We can do it, and we have already done a lot over the last 11 months.

KAKISSIS: Political journalist Margaret Heckel, who wrote a recent biography of Merkel, says the chancellor, who grew up in what was then communist East Germany, spends a lot of time debating pros and cons before making a decision. And with migrants, Merkel's decision did not involve shutting borders.

MARGARET HECKEL: For somebody who lived 38 years of her life in Eastern Germany being surrounded by walls, to erect another wall - that's just incomprehensible. You know, anybody who would call upon her to do that doesn't know her at all. You know, behind this is the basic idea that Europe has to come to terms with the problem.

KAKISSIS: Heckel says Merkel wants Germany, in part because of its Nazi past, to lead the European Union in welcoming refugees.

HECKEL: We always said, oh, no, no, no. Our heritage and, you know, World War II, and no, no, no, we keep off. But now things have changed. Angela Merkel was really clear about that when she started her term in 2005 that these times were gone.

KAKISSIS: But now several EU countries are undermining her policy by refusing to accept refugees. And a recent poll shows that 65 percent of Germans don't trust her when it comes to migrants and that more than half view her unfavorably. One is Barbel Franke, a middle-aged cook from Klosterheide-Lindow, a village northeast of Berlin. She lives across the street from a bankrupt hotel that houses 60 asylum-seekers. And she says Merkel cares more for them than for Germans.

BARBEL FRANKE: (Through interpreter) I don't think Angela Merkel will be chancellor again. She won't be voted for again because there's not enough being done for us. And many people here are unemployed as well. Many people need help, and they're not helped.

KAKISSIS: Federal elections are just over a year away. And already, one of Merkel's key allies, Bavarian leader Horst Seehofer, has hinted he will challenge her. Most migrants entered Germany through Bavaria last year, and that's where the recent attacks took place. Seehofer criticized Merkel's rallying phrase, wir schaffen das, or we can do it.


HORST SEEHOFER: (Through interpreter) I cannot, for the life of me, embrace this phase as my own. The problems we face are too big. And the solutions we've come up with so far are just too unsatisfactory.

KAKISSIS: Pollster Manfred Guellner told NPR that despite Merkel's dip in the polls, Germans also don't see Seehofer or other politicians as serious alternatives to her. So remember Frank Schiefelbein, the disenchanted Merkel voter visiting the zoo with his little grandson?

SCHIEFELBEIN: (Speaking German).

KAKISSIS: Well, he told me, "I would not ask any other politician about the situation in the Middle East, for example, because they don't have a clue about it." And comparing Merkel to her challengers, he said, "they don't understand that you cannot solve conflicts by screaming and shouting."

MONTAGNE: And Joanna, to wrap this up, Angela Merkel is already backing off her open-door policy. Is that because of all of this political pressure?

KAKISSIS: Yes, in part. But remember she also negotiated this deal with Turkey to stop migrants from arriving to the EU. So she's not having to deal with the kind of massive numbers of asylum-seekers that we saw last year. And the question is, will this deal with Turkey hold up, and if it doesn't, you know, how will she manage another big flow of migrants? That's what Germans want to know.

MONTAGNE: That's Joanna Kakissis speaking to us from Berlin. Thanks very much.

KAKISSIS: You're welcome, Renee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joanna Kakissis is a foreign correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she reports poignant stories of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.