Merkel feels chill as coalition goes cold on refugee issue

German chancellor says ‘walling ourselves in is no answer’ to Europe’s refugee crisis

Battling a bad cold and facing down a growing political chill, Chancellor Angela Merkel has warned the Bundestag – and her European allies – that "walling ourselves in is no answer" to Europe's refugee crisis.

Ahead of Wednesday’s meeting with François Hollande in Paris, and amid mixed French signals on refugees, the German leader stood firm amid growing domestic pressure to change course on the crisis.

Germany is receiving up to 7,000 people daily, accepted 180,000 people in November alone and is on course to crack the million ceiling – the previous annual forecast – by the end of the week.

“One cannot wall oneself in but neither can one pretend that the refugee task is a good reason to depart from all principles of the past,” Merkel told the Bundestag during its budgetary debate.

Chill spreads

Three months ago Merkel insisted Germany “can manage this”. But as temperatures have dropped, with no let-up in arrivals, a chill has spread through her

Christian Democratic Union

(CDU) and its coalition partner, the

Christian Social Union

(CSU), on the front lines of the Balkan route in Bavaria.

Under pressure to present a strategy, Merkel said Wednesday that the nature of the crisis – with many variables outside her control – meant “we will have to drive by sight for a few years”.

“But in crises lie chances and I think that is something we will only become aware of later,” she said. Rather than leave arrivals in limbo, and repeat integration failures of the past, she said Germany should be “proud” of its integration and language courses.

“What people learn here can be used in any life – whether here with us or in Syria, too,” she said.

That Germany was in a position to shoulder the additional financial burden from assisting refugees and still produce a balanced budget was, she said, the result of prudent management of the economy with steady growth and record low unemployment.

But, in a nod to growing resistance among her political allies, Merkel insisted “the number of refugees must be reduced” with expedited deportation of those from the Balkans and other safe-origin countries.

The chancellor, celebrating a decade in office this week, has refused to depart from international human rights obligations to shelter those seeking asylum. There was no easy answer to the crisis, she said, but a series of measures including international assistance as well as a burden-sharing in Europe.

Refugee-critical remarks by French prime minister Manuel Valls – and his later U-turn – prompted irritation in Berlin, amid an increasingly charged atmosphere in Germany.

Migration caps

Already senior CDU allies of Merkel – from interior minister Thomas de Maizière and finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble – are distancing themselves from the German leader by calling for migration caps.

Even Germany’s Jewish community attracted controversy by joining the calls for migration caps.

The latest Merkel critic is German EU commissioner Günther Oettinger, who said German asylum law “acts like a magnet for refugees”.

Mr Oettinger, a senior CDU figure, told the Handelsblatt business daily that only reducing incentives to come will cut numbers.

“Changing the constitution would be necessary in order to establish new rules on asylum,” he said. “As long as this isn’t done, there is only one other alternative – aid to the tune of millions to Turkey and other states.”

Meanwhile, Berlin authorities are investigating a uniformed security guard at a refugee facility filmed saying arrivals should be housed in ex-Nazi concentration camps.

"In two years, there will be a revolution here and there will be no more of all this shit," the man said in a video clip published online by the Bild tabloid.

Derek Scally

Derek Scally

Derek Scally is an Irish Times journalist based in Berlin