In a vote seen as a referendum on Angela Merkel’s open border policy toward Syrian refugees, her CDU party lost support in all three German provinces that held elections this month. Outside of Germany, EU governments are poised to slam their borders shut in defiance of Merkel in part because of renewed fears after last Tuesday’s attacks on Brussels that refugees are a fatal threat to public safety.
Despite these challenges to her de facto leadership of Europe, Merkel’s CDU remains very much in power, and support for Merkel herself has actually increased slightly since the election. She has not wavered in declaring her belief that accepting refugees is morally right and would be manageable if EU nations cooperated and shared the burden. In an official statement made just hours after the Brussels attack, Merkel spoke out in favor of EU openness and cooperation, declaring, “Our strength is in our unity, and that is how our free societies will prove themselves stronger than terrorism.”
Predictions that the refugee crisis, or any single issue, might fracture the EU and end Merkel’s historic three-term run as German chancellor have once again been proven wrong. The most recent predictions have failed to take into account the immense strength of Merkel’s personal brand, and her innovative use of digital media to connect directly with voters.
Merkel is perhaps the first head of state in history with her own emoticon. Her supporters use the symbol “>” as shorthand for the chancellor’s habitual hand gesture, made when she positions her thumbs and forefingers in a diamond shape held in front of her stomach. Germans affectionately refer to it as the “Merkel-Raute” or “Merkel Rhombus.” The gesture is so iconic that it has been imitated by everybody from the British prime minister to German flash mobs. In the run-up to Germany’s 2015 elections, in which the CDU captured a record 41 percent of the national vote, the Merkel-Raute was the centerpiece of a successful CDU-sponsored social media campaign. Supporters uploaded pictures of themselves superimposed over a billboard image of Merkel’s hands making the gesture. Numerous parodies of the meme, which featured Voldemort, Mr. Burns from “The Simpsons,” and The Joker, went viral and served only to increase global awareness of Merkel’s carefully crafted public persona.
Merkel even has an augmented reality app, called, with typical German directness, “Merkel-App.” Smartphone users who open the app and point it at a poster of Merkel will see and hear her image deliver a short stump speech. The app tracks the position of Merkel’s face as the phone moves, creating the illusion that the stationary poster has come to life and is addressing the viewer directly. Far from drawing any creepy comparisons to Orwell’s Big Brother, “Merkel-App” has generated positive press worldwide.
Merkel’s use of digital media is effective because it is so unexpected. For Germans, it is as if everyone’s sensible, reliable, middle-aged mother suddenly mastered Twitter or Tumblr and amassed a huge following. Merkel’s nickname among Germans is, in fact, “mutti,” or “mommy.” Coined as an insult by one of Merkel’s early political opponents, “mutti” was embraced by Merkel and became affectionate shorthand for her nearly unassailable identity as Germany’s caretaker.
Even though the CDU remains in power and the immediate gains made by its far-right challenger, the anti-immigrant AfD party, are marginal, Merkel has major challenges ahead. But she has survived the scorn of nations before. The Greek debt crisis, which began in 2009 and spread to the rest of the EU, saw Merkel emerge as the champion of an economic austerity policy so unpopular that it sparked furious protests throughout Europe and continues to shape Greek politics. As with the current migrant crisis, observers predicted then that Merkel’s lone wolf policies would unseat her and tear the EU apart.
With the attacks in Brussels focusing the world’s attention on the security of the EU’s borders, and with warmer spring weather threatening to loose a new flood of Syrian refugees toward Europe, it will be interesting to see if Germany’s tech-savvy “mutti” can not only stay in power but keep her unofficial status as “Chancellor of the Free World.”