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Stinging rebuke for Angela Merkel in German elections

Not so much a rejection as a stinging rebuke. A shot across the bows. German voters have told Angela Merkel that they are deeply unhappy with her refugee policy, and while they remain content for her to stay in charge, they expect changes from her and her party, the CDU.

Angela Merkel's CDU party suffered unexpected losses in German elections Credit: Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters

Merkel’s candidates had expected to retain control of all three federal states up for grabs yesterday. In the event they lost two, Baden-Wurtemberg and Rhineland Palatinate in the West, and clung on to win Saxony-Anhalt in the East. But even there they saw themselves outflanked on the right by the anti-immigrant party Alternative for Germany (AfD) which won an astonishing 24% of the vote.

Pro-refugee parties also did well, especially in the West, which has led some to argue that this result was not a simple rejection of the welcome given to migrants in the last year. There is some truth in that, but what the refugee crisis has done is to shatter to consensus in German politics that has been in place ever since 1945.

Gone - for now at least - are the days when Merkel’s CDU and the left of centre SPD dominated politics, alternating power between them or even sharing it in a Grand Coalition. Now, a far-right populist party, the AfD, has seats in 8 out of 16 regional assemblies. The far-left Die Linke, and the Green party, are both strong and getting stronger.

Supporters of anti-immigration Alternative for Germany (AFD) celebrate following first exit polls in the state election in Baden-Wuerttemberg Credit: Michael Dalder/Reuters

This hasn’t happened because of an economic crisis, or mass unemployment or a corruption scandal. The fragmentation of the German political landscape is being driven by the arrival of a million people seeking asylum.

Chancellor Merkel is not about to fall. All the indications are that she will go on at least until the general election next year, and very possibly beyond. But she is being weakened at home at precisely the moment she needs to be strong abroad.

On Thursday the EU leaders get together again to try and finalise the deal with Turkey that they came close to agreeing last week, but it is by no means certain that the deal will get the unanimous approval it needs.

In Eastern Europe, leaders are deeply concerned at the prospect of millions of Turks now being given visa-free access to the Schengen area, and fear that future relocation of Syrian refugees from camps in Turkey to the EU will mean quotas for resettlement being imposed on them.

A migrant carries a box with her goods upon her arrival at a refugee shelter in Berlin Credit: Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters

And from the other side, the Spanish are now saying they think the whole idea of sending refugees and migrants back to Turkey is against international law, and is something that they will not be able to sign up to. The European Court, of course, may end up outlawing forced returns on the same grounds.

A year ago Angela Merkel could probably have driven this deal through simply by force of will, and the unchallenged dominance she exercised in the councils of Europe. Not any more. Suddenly everyone feels able to defy her. The Austrians even dared to hold a conference on migration without inviting Germany.

The pack has smelled weakness in the Alpha-female, and yesterday’s election results will only embolden them further.