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CSU leader defuses refugee row with Merkel, despite upper limit demand

After months of pot-shots at the chancellor, Christian Social Union leader Horst Seehofer has pledged support for Angela Merkel, but he still wants a refugee cap. Kate Brady reports from the CDU conference in Karlsruhe.

With the awkward memory of his own party conference last month still fresh in his mind, the CSU leader could not have been expecting a particularly warm welcome from his larger sister party, the Christian Democratic Union, at their party conference.

In Munich last month, Seehofer had renewed his attack on Merkel’s refugee policy while both leaders were on stage, an uncomfortable incident that reminded some in the German press of watching a school girl being scolded by her teacher.

But on Tuesday, it was Seehofer’s turn to tread Merkel’s stage. Entering the trade fair arena in the southern German town of Karlsruhe, the Bavarian leader was greeted with a smattering of applause that was no match for the double standing ovation that Merkel got the day before.

The CSU leader’s appearance at the CDU congress came just a day after Merkel had delivered a triumphant speech that seemed to have won back the recalcitrant elements of her center-right party who were beginning to reveal their discontent with her refugee policy. The resounding support from the delegates followed the announcement of a resolution aimed at reducing the number of refugees arriving in Germany.

Seehofer still applying pressure

"Thank you … for my very friendly welcome," Seehofer began, to a roar of laughter from the CDU delegates.

For Seehofer, the refugee crisis was only one topic on the agenda. Describing the issue as one with "many faces," the Bavarian premier said it was "difficult to provide the population with a black and white solution."

Deutschland CDU Parteitag Horst Seehofer

The CSU leader was playing an away game on Tuesday

"The German people are only interested in whether we will succeed in noticeably reducing the numbers of asylum seekers," Seehofer told the party conference, reiterating that changes must come soon.

Renewing his previous demands for an upper limit on the refugee influx, Seehofer said the CSU was still in favor of a cap, despite Merkel's motion only to "reduce" the number of asylum seekers.

Without a limit, Seehofer insisted that it would be impossible to resolve "the problem ... in an intelligent, humane and sensible manner, and in the foreseeable future."

"There is no nation on earth that accepts refugees without a limit, and even Germany will not manage this sustainably. That's my message," Seehofer said.

'Excellent chancellor'

Despite his continued demands for a cap, Seehofer pledged the CSU's support to the CDU, saying that he saw Germany's conservative faction - which has been united for over 65 years - on a "common path."

As German society begins the challenge of integrating the estimated one million refugees who have crossed the border in the past year, Seehofer insisted that the success of integration lay not only in the hands of the German population but also in those of the new arrivals.

Angela Merkel und Horst Seehofer CSU Parteitag

There was an awkwardly public disagreement between the two leaders last month in Munich

"Those who have the right to asylum must want to live with us and not near or against us," Seehofer said.

Brushing his differences with Merkel aside, Seehofer went on to praise the chancellor, saying that Germany had an "excellent chancellor" who represented the country as "first class around the world."

'Symbol of coherence'

Jesse Jeng, a CDU delegate from Hannover, told DW that his faith in the unity of the two conservative parties had been restored.

"I thought it was good that Seehofer tried to bring everything back together," he said. "And I think this close unity with the CSU will be upheld when facing future challenges."

Similarly, Hamburg CDU representative Dinah Stollwerck-Bauer said Seehofer's message was a "symbol of the coherence between the CDU and the CSU," adding that the shared aim of the two parties had always been there.

"I think we always had the same goal," she said. "In politics, controversial discussion of an issue belongs to a good debate. We want to advance the subject of refugees in Germany and achieve successful integration."

Wind in her sails

Merkel was all smiles as she escorted Seehofer to the exit of the Karlsruhe trade fair. Jens Spahn, parliamentary state secretary at the Finance Ministry, told DW that the CDU conference "had put the wind back in her sails."

With the support of her party members restored, Merkel is now facing the next European Union summit on Thursday, where leaders are expected to address the UK’s potential exit from the bloc. Closing the conference on Tuesday, however, Merkel embraced the festive season, wishing her delegates Merry Christmas.

"This did us all good,” the chancellor said.

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