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Refugees and Syria dominate SPD party conference

The Social Democrats, junior partners in Chancellor Angela Merkel's coalition government, have kicked off their three-day party congress. As DW's Naomi Conrad found out, asylum and foreign policy topped the agenda.

As delegates queued outside the security gates in Berlin's conference centre laughing and chatting, several policemen patrolled the grounds outside, the Social Democrats' red flags fluttering in the icy wind.

The SPD, Chancellor Angela Merkel's junior partners in the grand coalition government, kicked off its three-day party conference in Berlin. The SPD is seeking to reposition itself and emerge from the shadow of its coalition partners as many in Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) party and its Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union (CSU) rebel against her "open-door" refugee policy and call for upper limits on asylum seekers.

As he took to the podium under a huge banner declaring "Germany's future: Safe. Just. Cosmopolitan." Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier called on the 600 delegates to be "courageous" and not shirk responsibility.

"It's a burden to shoulder responsibility in difficult times like these," he called across the plenum in a fiery speech in which he also advocated for "more dialogue with Russia, not less." The speech ended with him receiving a standing ovation from the audience.

Syria tops the agenda

Steinmeier defended the decision made last week to send six reconnaissance jets to Syria to support the coalition fighting against the militant group "Islamic State."

Delegates vote on party policy during the Social Democrats Party (SPD) congress in Berlin, Germany, December 10, 2015.

The SPD is planning its policy direction for the next two years

The "whole, ugly truth," he said with a view to the mission's detractors - 28 SPD parliamentarians voted against the military assignment - was that a political solution could not succeed as long as "IS" fighters continued to expand their territory.

"No conflict can be solved by military means alone," Steinmeier said; the military and political solutions had to go hand in hand. He added that "a shimmer of a political solution is now visible on the horizon," referring to an agreement last month in Vienna between diplomats from 17 countries for a political transition and an end to the Syrian war.

But not everyone agreed: Several delegates who took to the stage accused Germany's government and the anti-IS coalition more generally of lacking a comprehensive strategy for Syria. Others questioned the mission's legitimacy, given that it lacks a clear United Nations mandate. Former development minister Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul said a military mission was a mere "substitute for a real solution containing dangerous elements."

Back home, one delegate said, many in his local SPD group criticized the fact that they were unable to reach their member of parliament in the run-up to the vote in the Bundestag, as the mission was rushed through parliament just three weeks after the terrorist attacks in Paris - which led a reluctant Chancellor to heed French President Francois Hollande's call for European solidarity.

Strategies for refugees

In turn, Steinmeier appealed for more European solidarity in the refugee crisis.

"Either Europe stands together and shows solidarity, or we will start erecting border controls again, as European solidarity crumbles," he said.

European Parliament President Martin Schulz lambasted "a break down of solidarity" within the EU in an emotional speech.

"When 20 countries decide that they have nothing to do with the crisis, then that’s what leads to the crisis in the first place!" the longtime SPD member said.

German politicians have repeatedly called on the country's European Union partners to help it shoulder the burden of the unprecedented influx of refugees and migrants this year and continue to push for a binding quota system to distribute asylum seekers throughout the bloc.

Migrants cross the German border to Austria on October 28, 2015 near Wegscheid, Germany.

A million people seeking refuge have come to Germany this year

While many in Merkel's CDU and the CSU are calling for an upper limit on the number of asylum seekers Germany can take in, the SPD favors a quota system for Syrian refugees in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. This would not, SPD politicians contend, result in upper limits, but rather better steer and control immigration to Germany.

Malu Dreyer, Premier of Rhineland-Palatinate, who hurried back home to visit the site of an arson attack on a refugee centre after her speech, told delegates that quotas "can help people reach Europe safely, without having to risk their lives and resort to human traffickers.

At the same time, she added, limiting family reunions - as many in the CDU and CSU are demanding - was not a solution. "It's inhuman only to take in men and leave their wives and children in the war," she said.

Aydan Özoguz, state secretary for migration and refugees, told delegates that there would be "no reduction of human rights." One million people had registered to apply for refugee status in Germany so far this year, she said, "and not all of them will be able to stay."

But those who did, she said, would have to be integrated: "That is not negotiable."

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