Tensions rise in Berlin ahead of crunch talks on refugees

Merkel aims to quell dissent in her own party amid calls for greater EU burden-sharing

German chancellor Angela Merkel and vice chancellor Sigmar Gabriel   in Berlin. Photograph: Odd Andersen/AFP/Getty Images

German chancellor Angela Merkel and vice chancellor Sigmar Gabriel in Berlin. Photograph: Odd Andersen/AFP/Getty Images


German chancellor Angela Merkel holds crunch talks in Berlin today to quell growing tensions in her government over the refugee crisis, now likely to bring more than one million people into Germany by the end of the year.

The meeting follows a high- level gathering in Berlin yesterday where heads of UN agencies and other international groups praised Germany’s role and stressed the “moral obligation” shared by all in this crisis”.

“Germany has provided leadership in Europe in respect of the moral challenge which faces all of us,” said Peter Sutherland, the UN’s special representative for international migration.

“That responsibility is shared in the EU and should be shared equitably and fairly. Proximity does not define responsibility for refugees.”

UN high commissioner for refugees António Guterres warned that “this is not just a German crisis but a European crisis” that required greater burden-sharing.

Guterres said that, despite additional financial commitments, global UN funding for his agency remains at 50 per cent below commitments – a situation German foreign minister Frank Walter Steinmeier described as “grotesque”.

With the refugee burden, in German eyes, being shared unequally around Europe, the political stakes are rising rapidly in Berlin as tempers fray.

National challenge

Measures under discussion include sorting arrivals by country of origin to expedite the likely deportation of asylum applicants from so-called “countries of safe origin”.

But big disagreements remains on both the details and the optics of a package.

Dr Merkel’s Christian Social Union (CSU) allies in Bavaria, on the front lines of the refugee crisis, are demanding “transit zones” in border areas: closed camps from where new arrivals’ asylum applications could be processed rapidly and mass deportations carried out.

Dr Merkel’s junior coalition partner, the Social Democratic Party (SPD), agrees on the need for registration of arrivals to be faster, and to be obligatory for anyone seeking welfare payments.

But, with an eye on German history, the SPD oppose anything that looks like they are locking up people in camps.

“Rather than huge and uncontrollable prison zones on the country’s borders, we need lots of registration and immigration centres inside Germany,” said SPD leader Sigmar Gabriel.

Rhetorical shift

Christian Democratic Union

Two months ago she set aside EU asylum rules for Syrians. She continues to insist that there can be no asylum cap and still warns that closing German borders could cause an unpredictable chain reaction.

And, in a nod to Hungary’s erection of border fences, she warned that Balkan “fault lines” – the source of bloody regional conflict in the 1990s – could flare up again sooner than people realised.

However, with long-term EU burden-sharing remaining elusive, Angela Merkel the chancellor has given way to the realpolitik party leader.

After 10 hours of talks on Tuesday with her political frenemy, the hardline CSU leader Horst Seehofer, Dr Merkel said her goal was to “order and . . . reduce the refugee stream”.

With her party slipping seven points in polls in just three months, and attacks on asylum homes now a daily occurrence, Dr Merkel knows that a dangerous winter of discontent looms if she cannot win over EU partners to reduce pressure on Germany.

On Saturday, the far-right Alternative für Deutschland party will stage a series of demonstrations across Germany, including in Berlin, under the slogan: “Migration needs Limits – Red card for Merkel.”