Chancellor Angela Merkel, who staked her legacy on welcoming hundreds of thousands of migrants into Germany, agreed on Monday to build border camps for asylum seekers and to tighten the border with Austria in a political deal to save her government.
It was a spectacular turnabout for a leader who has been seen as the standard-bearer of the liberal European order but who has come under intense pressure at home from the far right and from conservatives in her governing coalition over her migration policy.
Although the move to appease the conservatives exposed her growing political weakness, Ms. Merkel will limp on as chancellor. For how long is unclear. The nationalism and anti-migrant sentiment that has challenged multilateralism elsewhere in Europe is taking root — fast — in mainstream German politics.
Ms. Merkel agreed to the latest policy after an inserruction over migration policy led by her interior minister Horst Seehofer, threatened to bring down her coalition. Mr. Seehofer demanded that Germany block migrants at the border if they have no papers, or have already registered in another European country.
Ms. Merkel, who supports free movement across Europe’s borders, has been opposed to any moves effectively resurrecting border controls until Monday night, when she made the deal to stay in power.
The new policy is subject to the approval of the Social Democrats, the third party in Ms. Merkel’s coalition. It would establish camps, called “transit centers,” at points along the border. Newly arriving migrants would be screened in the centers, and any determined to have already applied for asylum elsewhere in the European Union would be turned back.
Under Ms. Merkel, Germany has been a bulwark against the rise of the far right in Europe and the increasing turn against migrants. Even as neighboring countries turned away those fleeing war and strife in the Middle East, she has welcomed more than a million since 2015, and lobbied for a collective European solution.
Comparing the migrant crisis to a challenge on the same scale as Germany’s postwar reconstruction and reunification, she appealed to fellow Germans that they were up to the challenge.
“We can manage,” she said famously in 2015, inspiring many to donate food, clothes and their time to help. Since then the number of new migrants has dropped to a fraction of what it was three years ago.
But the good will has been eroding as Germany has struggled to absorb those already in the country. An ascendant far right has relentlessly pushed the narrative that the migrant crisis is continuing and that crime is up.
Anti-migrant feelings helped lead to the rise of a far-right political party, the Alternative for Germany, or AfD, which has put Germany’s more mainstream parties under pressure to change.
Ms. Merkel has been unable to stem the changing tide, with cascading implications for politics in Germany and Europe.
“Her political capital is depleted,” said Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff, director of the Berlin office of the German Marshall Fund. “We are well into the final chapter of the Merkel era.”
“Under her continued leadership, Germany will be largely immobilized at home and in Europe,” Mr. Kleine-Brockhoff added, a dramatic change for a country that has been Europe’s political and economic anchor. “But the promise of Merkel was stability, not immobility.”