Merkel gets refugee ultimatum amid claims policy ‘overwhelming’ Germany

Chancellor given two months to ease country’s asylum seeker controversy

Nerves are strained to breaking point in Berlin’s ruling coalition, with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Bavarian allies giving her two months to ease Germany’s migration crisis.

Dr Merkel’s Social Democrat (SPD) junior coalition partner has mocked her “we can do this” migration maxim from last summer, while migration critics at a bad-tempered parliamentary party meeting of her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) yesterday were told to “shut up”.

Tempers flared after 50 CDU MPs signed an open letter to Dr Merkel, warning that Germany has been “overwhelmed” by her liberal refugee policy.

Anxious to dampen growing backbencher frustration, chancellor allies warned Merkel critics to give her more time for pan-European migration measures to show results.


Looming elections

But time is not on Dr Merkel’s side, with three key state elections looming in March and pressure rising daily after the New Year’s Eve attacks in Cologne.

Three weeks on, Cologne police have made their first arrests, reportedly of Algerian asylum seekers suspected of attacking women in Cologne. But with public pressure for a tough political response to the attacks, Berlin leaders are floating on a daily basis new proposals to clamp down on criminal asylum seekers, particularly from North Africa.

In addition, Berlin officials want to declare Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia “countries of safe origin”, raising further the burden of proof of persecution for asylum applicants.

Amid the growing strain, SPD leader Sigmar Gabriel, the deputy chancellor, is anxious to improve his centre-left party’s law-and-order credentials and has demanded political and economic pressure on north African states to accept deported nationals from Germany.

After a two-day SPD think-in near Berlin, however, Mr Gabriel reserved his greatest venom for Merkel. “What’s not on is that Mrs Merkel lets herself be cheered for inviting over one million refugees . . . while her CDU bows out of responsibility for long-term integration,” he said at a press conference.

Arguing that pushing through greater controls on Europe's outer Schengen borders "is a matter for the chancellor"

That prompted a quick CDU response, attacking the SPD for demanding quick action on migration measures it had opposed until the Cologne attacks. With 2,500 people still arriving daily over Germany’s borders, Bavaria’s ruling CSU has warned Dr Merkel they will push for national border controls by March should European measures fail to reduce daily arrivals.

Mr Gabriel agrees, arguing that pushing through greater controls on Europe’s outer Schengen borders “is a matter for the chancellor”. With pressure building on all sides, Dr Merkel loyalists launched a counter-offensive yesterday.

Low confidence

At a CDU parliamentary party meeting, Bundestag floor leader Volker Kauder warned MPs that, rather than venting their frustrations in the media on a daily basis, they should “consider walking past the microphone”. Another senior CDU figure urged her colleagues to “shut up and work”.

With confidence levels at “subterranean levels”, according to one meeting participant, CDU general secretary Peter Tauber has called for 1,000 daily deportations to ease pressure.

Meanwhile, Austria is likely to tighten up border controls, after setting aside Schengen rules to impose temporary new checks on its border with Slovenia. Austrian foreign minister Sebastian Kurz said a cabinet meeting tomorrow in Vienna would be devoted to the refugee issue: “I assume that [some] concrete measures will be taken.”

With ongoing EU dissent on joint measures to ease migration pressures, Mr Kurz raised the prospect of joining forces with Germany and Slovenia. “If there is not an all-European solution, countries such as Austria are obliged to take national measures,” said Mr Kurz.

Derek Scally

Derek Scally

Derek Scally is an Irish Times journalist based in Berlin