Angela Merkel takes a tougher refugee line ahead of election

German chancellor to seek extension of border checks in effort to win back voters

German chancellor Angela Merkel at an election campaign rally in Quedlinburg, Germany, on Saturday. Photograph: Reinhard Krause/Reuters

With a month to election day, German chancellor Angela Merkel has ramped up her refugee-critical rhetoric in a bid to pull back far-right voters, boost her Bavarian allies and win over a record number of undecideds.

The chancellor used weekend interviews and rallies to stand by her 2015 decision that saw almost one million asylum seekers arrive in the country. She said she would decide the same way again, but insisted that events of 2015 "must not be repeated". Aware of huge public unease over the refugee crisis, and related terror attacks since, she signalled Germany would demand an extension of border checks on the border with Austria, a Schengen suspension requiring EU approval.

Ahead of an Africa summit on Monday, with leaders of African nations as well as France, Italy and Spain, Dr Merkel said the border checks should “be kept in place until the security services tell us they are not necessary”. She also took a tough line on reports that people granted asylum in Germany had returned to their homeland on holidays.

“Having a holiday in a country were one is persecuted is not on,” she said. “If this happens it can be reason to reconsider the asylum decision.” She disputed claims that she had “opened” Germany’s borders to refugees in the summer of 2015. When large numbers of asylum seekers walked from Hungary through Austria to Bavaria, she pointed out that “Germany’s borders were open and we decided not to close them”.


Asylum rules

However, she conceded she had been mistaken to rely on the Dublin EU asylum rules, which require asylum applications to be filed in the first EU country a person enters. She vowed to keep up pressure to reform the asylum rules, as it was not fair that Italy and Greece “carry the burden alone because of their geographical location”.

As the refugee crisis takes its place in the German election debate, Dr Merkel's tougher line is a bid to win back defectors from her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) to the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). At a weekend rally in the eastern German town of Quedlinburg, dozens of AfD and neo-Nazi protestors blew whistles and held up banners reading "Merkel, go to your Muslims".

“The mass immigration was illegal and our first task in parliament will be to launch an investigation into Angela Merkel’s decision to open the borders,” said Frank Pasemann, AfD candidate for the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt. Dr Merkel ruled out a coalition co-operation with the AfD, founded in the euro crisis and boosted by the refugee crisis, yet vowed to win back “each and very AfD voter” by taking their concerns seriously.


AfD regional leader André Poggenburg described Dr Merkel's play for his voters as a "milestone" in the party's history, back up to 10 per cent in some polls. Dr Merkel's tougher refugee rhetoric was also welcomed by Dr Merkel's more conservative Bavarian allies, the Christian Social Union (CSU).

With Bavaria on the frontline of the refugee crisis, CSU leaders have taken a consistently more critical refugee line that in Berlin. Bavarian interior minister Joachim Herrmann said that migration pressure had decreased since 2015 but that pressures were rising again on Europe’s southern borders.

"The current situation is one in which Europe has to react," he said.

In September 2015, at the height of the refugee crisis, border checks were introduced in Schengen border regions and extended since then. The European Commission has signalled that the current refugee crisis extension, expiring on November 11th, will be the last.

However, a commission spokesman signalled that a new Schengen suspension might be possible “to act consequently against terror”.

Derek Scally

Derek Scally

Derek Scally is an Irish Times journalist based in Berlin