Officially, Angela Merkel is not backing away from her open-door policy toward refugees. However, a discussion aimed at limiting the influx of refugees is long underway.
It's high noon in the Union, and Chancellor Angela Merkel is publicly under fire. She has become vulnerable. But the humiliation that her junior partners at the Christian Social Union subjected her to this weekend at their party congress was unlike anything that any previous German chancellor has had to suffer.
CSU boss Horst Seehofer reprimanded Merkel for her "Yes we can" policy much like a schoolteacher would a student in front of the class - and he did it on camera for the whole world to see. The CSU wants to limit the number of refugees that Germany takes in; Merkel does not. One could say that the situation represents a maximum possible conflict. And that conflict is raging within Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU), as well. That is the backdrop against which the debate over refugee policy in Germany is now taking place. Capping is all the rage at the moment.
Now, even the CDU's youth wing has taken a stance against Merkel. In fact, for the Young Union (JU), even the CSU's demands don't go far enough. The up-and-coming Christian Democrats want explicit caps. The JU fears that otherwise a "very real threat to our ability to assess ourselves will arise." They say that the federal government and the states should come to an agreement on exactly where the limit should be set. The CDU will be holding its party congress in three weeks, and it has been a long time since there was such infighting among the Christian Democrats.
More than anywhere else, skepticism about Merkel is growing loudest in the states. Reiner Haseloff, Saxony-Anhalt's CDU state premier, is calling for a cap that "bears our capabilities in mind." He says the limit for his state would be 12,000 refugees per year - including family members who join relatives already in Germany.
The common denominator
Slightly to Merkel's left, her Social Democratic (SPD) coalition partners also want to assert their control over refugees. SPD parliamentary group chairman Thomas Oppermann is making the case for a limit. According to his plan, the Bundestag, the EU and the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees would set annual limits. The theory behind the plan is that refugees would no longer have to risk their lives in the Aegean and Mediterranean seas and human traffickers would be driven out of business. Oppermann says limits should be determined by "how many people we can actually integrate."
But limits are already in place. They have just been pushed to the side as Germany moved to accommodate as many refugees as possible this year. In 2013, some 10,000 Syrians came directly to Germany from refugee camps in Lebanon. In 2014, that number doubled. Yet, during that same time, hundreds of thousands of Syrians took the Balkan route to Germany, creating a situation in which uncontrolled entries existed parallel to the established process.
Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere now wants to look very closely at Syria. The official word from his ministry is that many Syrians arriving in Germany are not really Syrians. The minister himself pegged this number at somewhere between 20 and 30 percent of new arrivals. But the fact of the matter is that there are no statistics on the actual number of "fake Syrians" currently in the country.
At the moment, enforcing limits is the one thing that most factions in the grand coalition government can agree on. The idea has its advantages politically. In a practical sense, it is a bartering arrangement between Germany and its neighbors. The European Union could agree to take in large contingents of refugees while also covering the cost of caring for those who remain in Turkey. In exchange, Turkey would be required to re-establish control over its border with Europe. The advantages are clear: fewer refugees and increased control.
And control is desperately needed. Asylum processing in Germany has effectively ground to a halt. The Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF), the agency responsible for the processing of asylum applications, simply cannot keep up. Of the 181,000 refugees who arrived in October, only 31,000 asylum applications have been able to be processed. A total of 328,000 are currently on hold. It takes an average of 5.2 months to process an application. Add to that the several months before an application can even be submitted. BAMF reportedly needs to create about 9,000 new positions if it is to complete the task - this year all of 1,350 new openings have been approved.
At the same time, European asylum law has failed. The Dublin Regulation, which stipulates that each refugee is required to file for asylum where he or she first reaches EU soil, has proven unworkable. Italy and Greece, the main points of arrival in Europe, are objectively overwhelmed.
Since the Arab uprisings began in 2011, many refugees have preferred to journey across the western Mediterranean; this year they have also taken to the Aegean. EU solidarity in taking in refugees arriving in Italy and Greece has remained nonexistent despite the fact that it was promised. The European Commission recently announced that it intends to present a reform plan in March 2016, to help Italy and Greece.