German president attacks ‘harsh’ tone in Berlin refugee row

Merkel’s CSU coalition partner threatens to close borders in days to asylum seekers

Chancellor Angela Merkel and Spanish PM Pedro Sanchez in Berlin, June 26th. Photograph: Reuters/Hannibal Hanschke

German president Frank-Walter Steinmeier has criticised Berlin’s “excessively harsh” refugee row that threatens to collapse chancellor Angela Merkel’s fourth-term coalition and centre-right political alliance.

The rare political intervention from Mr Steinmeier, a former Social Democrat (SPD) foreign minister, indicates Germany’s head of state views the stand-off in Berlin as far from business as usual.

“How can we call successfully for sense and moderation in the political debate,” he asked, “when . . . even in governing circles, eminently solvable problems are fought over with a severity and excessive harshness as if there is no tomorrow?”

His remark came before Tuesday evening’s crisis coalition meeting of Dr Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), its Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union (CSU) and the centre-left Social Democratic Party.


The CSU has threatened to defy Dr Merkel and close the border to some asylum seekers from next Monday unless the chancellor can secure “equivalent” measures to cut asylum numbers at this week’s European Council meeting in Brussels.

Dr Merkel has indicated that she could respond by dismissing CSU interior minister Horst Seehofer if he pushes border closures. That would trigger a Bavarian walk-out and the likely end of the 69-year old CDU/CSU Bundestag alliance.

With days to find a compromise, Dr Merkel told a joint CDU/CSU parliamentary meeting that they shared a “common destiny”, attracting strong applause from MPs of both parties.

Mr Seehofer also signalled his readiness to hold their alliance together and salvage the grand coalition government.

Earlier, welcoming new Spanish prime minister Pedro Sánchez to Berlin, Dr Merkel insisted that only a pan-EU refugee deal had any hope of addressing the scale of the crisis.

But she said “a certain amount of time” is needed to secure EU agreement on two outstanding points of a seven-point asylum package: asylum procedures and new “Dublin” rules to decide responsibilty for refugees.

Parallel to inner-EU agreement, the German leader has called for bilateral agreements with Morocco, Senegal and other migrant countries of origin.

Citing the example of agreements with Libya and Turkey, she called for “a certain amount of give and take”.

Bilateral agreements

Mr Sánchez backed the German push for bilateral agreements with African countries and Dr Merkel’s efforts to find an “efficient and common European answer” to the refugee question. Despite rising migrant numbers, he said Spain would act constructively, “without raising our voice by one decibel”.

Amid more conciliatory tones in Berlin, close Merkel allies are flying political kites in the direction of CSU leaders, under pressure to burnish their law-and-order credentials ahead of a crunch October state election in Bavaria.

On Tuesday, CDU politician Armin Schuster suggested a 30km buffer zone behind all German borders with mobile units to intercept migrants before they enter Germany and claim asylum.

Mr Schuster, a former federal police director, suggested those who file for asylum could be held in central camps until the responsible EU country is identified.

He called on the Bavarian CSU to give Dr Merkel “a fair chance” to agree EU and bilateral deals, adding that “no more pressure is needed”.

Derek Scally

Derek Scally

Derek Scally is an Irish Times journalist based in Berlin