‘Wir schaffen das’: Did Merkel effectively manage the European refugee crisis?

When discussing the 2021 German elections, the biggest detail to note is that Angela Merkel’s name will not feature. During her sixteen years of chancellorship, Merkel has certainly reshaped German and EU politics. This was partly the reason why she was appointed as the ‘most powerful woman’ in Top Forbes’ 100 Most Powerful Women List 2020 for the 10th consecutive year (Forbes, 2020). Owing to success in her leadership over the fourth largest economy in the world is a mix of pragmatism and foresight, granting her the nameMutti in German – mother.

However, Merkel’s popularity has had its highs and lows during the chancellorship. Indeed, 2015 was characterized by the rise in criticism of her management of the European migrant crisis. 

After a brief review of the events in 2015, the aim of this article is to evaluate the impact of her migration policy on the German political sphere – in particular with regard to the rise of AfD, a German nationalist and right-wing populist political party, and migration trends.


2015 is known as the beginning of the migration crisis in Europe. During that year, indeed, the migratory flux entering European borders increased dramatically. The protagonists of the crisis were mostly people fleeing from persecutions and wars from Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq. 

This state of affairs highlighted the flaws of EU migration policies and was accompanied by a series of dramatic events in which refugees lost their lives. In August 2015, Angela Merkel reacted to this phenomenon with her famous ‘Wir schaffen das’ – we’ll manage this. As a result, Germany suspended the Dublin Regulation on migrants and opened the borders; that year, more than 800,000 refugees arrived in the country. In 2015, thanks to the handling of this crisis, TIME magazine named her “Person of the Year”.


The public opinion’s reaction towards the chancellor’s choice has been varied. Merkel’s ‘Wir schaffen das’ has been seen by critics as a serious mistake, causing, on one hand, the rise of the Far Right and on the other hand the increase of migration flows and terrorist attacks.

Criticism towards the open-borders policy was heightened following the Bataclan’s attack in Paris and the subsequent attacks operated by ISIS-affiliated extremists. These sentiments transformed into support of the AfD (Alternative für Deutschland), a German extreme right-wing, anti-immigration and populist party that witnessed an incredible rise of the consensus. Historian, Niall Ferguson, predicted that AfD would become the country’s second-largest party (Ferguson, 2018). As a matter of fact, the 2016 Berlin state elections marked the electoral collapse of Merkel’s CDU party, which reached just 18% of the total votes, while AfD entered the state parliament for the first time. Then, in the 2017 federal elections, AfD became the third biggest party. Even though it is true that Far Right garnered popular support thanks to the politicization of the immigration issue, Niall Ferguson’s prediction did not come true. Indeed, a recent Infratest Dimap poll showed that 72% of Germans are satisfied with Merkel’s work – this is the highest level of popularity since January 2015 (RP Online, 2020). Furthermore, state elections in Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate in March 2021,  which were considered as a projection of federal elections, showed that AfD lost a significant number of votes, reaching respectively 15.1% and 8.3%.

Besides, it has been questioned whether Merkel’s dictum has increased the migration flows. Ludger Pries analysis shows that there was no substantial impact of the chancellor’s statement on the refugee movement: the number of incoming refugees reached its overall peak in November 2015 and then faced a constant decline to less than 5.000 weekly registered refugees in February 2016 (Pries, 2019). When Merkel made her declaration, the migration crisis was already underway: her gesture was the result of moral and pragmatic reasons.

In conclusion, Merkel’s approach to the handling of the migration crisis did not prove to be unsuccessful. Despite the fact the Far-Right increased its consensus and entered the parliament, it has recently taken a step back. Likewise, migration flows have decreased over time. Trump’s declaration in 2017 that refugees were ‘one of the great Trojan horses’ (Kopan, 2015), has been disproved by the chancellor’s national popularity. Merkel remains the ‘Mutti’ of her nation.

Articolo a cura di Laura Sparascio


BBC (2015). Migrant crisis: Merkel warns of EU ‘failure’. Consultabile sul sito https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-34108224

Dostal, J. M. (2017). The German Federal Election of 2017: How the Wedge Issue of Refugees and Migration Took the Shine off Chancellor Merkel and Transformed the Party System, The Political Quarterly, Vol. 88, No. 4, October–December 2017.

Ferguson N. (2018). The EU melting pot is melting down. Consultabile sul sito http://www.niallferguson.com/journalism/politics/the-eu-melting-pot-is-melting-down

Forbes (2020). Angela Merkel, Christine Lagarde And Kamala Harris Top Forbes’ 100 Most Powerful Women List.Consultabile sul sito https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbespr/2020/12/08/angela-merkel-christine-lagarde-and-kamala-harris-top-forbes-100-most-powerful-women-list/?sh=22409d511a5f

Gibbs N. (2015). Why TIME Chose Angela Merkel as Person of the Year 2015. Consultabile sul sitohttps://time.com/time-person-of-the-year-2015-angela-merkel-choice/

Kopan T. (2015). Donald Trump: Syrian refugees a ‘Trojan horse’. Consultabile sul sito https://edition.cnn.com/2015/11/16/politics/donald-trump-syrian-refugees/index.html

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Oltermann P. (2020). How Angela Merkel’s great migrant gamble paid off. Consultabile sul sitohttps://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/aug/30/angela-merkel-great-migrant-gamble-paid-off

Pries L. (2019). We will Manage It” – Did Chancellor Merkel’s Dictum Increase or Even Cause the Refugee Movement in 2015?

RP Online (2020). Merkel so beliebt wie zuletzt Anfang 2015. Consultabile sul sito https://rp-online.de/politik/deutschland/ard-deutschlandtrend-angela-merkel-so-beliebt-wie-zuletzt-anfang-2015_aid-51494005

Tharoor I. (2020). Five years after the migration crisis, Merkel, not Trump, seems vindicated. Consultabile sul sitohttps://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2020/09/04/merkel-trump-migration-europe/

Trines S. (2017). Lessons From Germany’s Refugee Crisis: Integration, Costs, and Benefits. Consultabile sul sitohttps://wenr.wes.org/2017/05/lessons-germanys-refugee-crisis-integration-costs-benefits


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