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Under-fire Merkel talks migration in parliament

June 28, 2018

Angela Merkel has told German MPs that the question of migration could decide the fate of the EU. The chancellor is under increasing pressure at home from her Bavarian CSU allies.

Angela Merkel
Image: Reuters/Y. Herman

Chancellor Angela Merkel has told the German parliament that a European arrangement to solve the problem of asylum applications has not yet been reached, and dampened expectations that a conclusive solution would be reached at this week's European Union summit.

"We're not yet where we want to be," she said, in an unusually passionate and succinct speech to a lively chamber frequently marked by heckling from the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) and applause from her own Christian Democratic Union (CDU) members.

She said that two points of a seven-point plan being hashed out with European partners remained controversial and would need to be resolved over the next two days. One of these, she said, was the EU directive on granting and withdrawing international protection, where members still needed to find common standards for providing asylum.

The other point of contention is the re-organization of the Dublin Accord, which regulates where asylum applications have to be dealt with, and how asylum-seekers are distributed across the bloc. This is likely to prove a problem, since countries with hard-line right-wing governments have proved intransigent on the issue.

Asylum-seekers worse off?

But the five points that have been agreed show that the EU summit is likely to result in significantly worse conditions for asylum-seekers in Europe: they would include allowing countries to the right to detain migrants if they violate the terms of their residency permits by travelling around the country, and providing only non-cash benefits, rather than money. The EU is also discussing measures designed to discourage making second applications elsewhere if the first one fails.

Merkel said that asylum-seekers in the EU "should not be able to choose" in which EU country they apply for asylum. "Europe has many challenges, but migration could become a question of fate," Merkel told the parliamentarians.

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If she fails to find a "European solution" to the question of how to distribute and organize asylum applications, the pressure on her at home, particularly from her conservative allies in Bavaria, the Christian Social Union (CSU), will become more difficult to manage. Should that alliance break down, the result could well be new elections and the end of Merkel's chancellorship.

In recent weeks, prominent CSU figures, particularly Bavarian State Premier Markus Söder, have complained that no such EU-wide agreement has been reached in the last three years, when the initial influx of refugees, of which many were fleeing the Syrian war, came to Germany.

It was also notable, and remarked on by several opposition politicians, that Interior Minister Horst Seehofer did not appear at Thursday's debate. The CSU leader's asylum "master plan," which he said would reform Germany's asylum system and contained a controversial plan to turn asylum-seekers away at the German border, triggered the political crisis that has made the chancellor wobble in recent weeks.

Merkel stresses EU achievements on migration

His place was taken by Alexander Dobrindt, another prominent CSU figure and thorn in Merkel's side with regard to the asylum debate, who insisted that Germany should be able to turn asylum-seekers away at the border, even though this would violate EU law.

Merkel countered the CSU's argument by saying it was "not true" that nothing had happened in the last three years.

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For one thing, she argued, the EU had made agreements with countries of origin to make limited migration legal, and had declared countries in the western Balkans as "safe countries of origin," which meant asylum applications from those countries could be rejected more quickly. "In exchange, we have made work permits possible for jobs that are available here, and this system works by and large very well," Merkel said.

She also insisted that finding a solution to the underlying problem of migration would only be possible via cooperation with African countries, similar to the deal that had been agreed with Turkey in the aftermath of the 2015 refugee crisis.

AfD co-leader Alexander Gauland, who as leader of the biggest opposition party spoke first in response to the chancellor, dismissed all of Merkel's carefully argued points, demanding only that Germany "close the borders, withdraw from all resettlement programs, and help those who really need help where they are."

"Stop importing endless problems into our country," he said, before adding that a European solution was a dream.

Angela Merkel (CDU) and Horst Seehofer (CSU)
Merkel is under pressure from her Bavarian CSU ally Horst SeehoferImage: picture-alliance/dpa/K.Nietfeld

Ordering migration

Nevertheless, Merkel repeated the mantra that has been repeated by her party for the past several weeks: that there is no difference between Germany's interests and the EU's interests. "Germany will only do well if Europe does well," she said.

The chancellor has already received some political cover from European partners. Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has signaled a willingness to take back asylum-seekers who had already registered in Greece. The leaders of Spain, Finland, and Luxembourg also expressed support for Merkel ahead of the Brussels summit. But hard-line stances elsewhere in Europe, such as that adopted by Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, could yet scupper a Europe-wide deal.

Merkel used Thursday's speech to defend her decision to open Germany's borders late in 2015 to a group of asylum-seekers, describing it as the "right decision" in an "emergency situation" that was made in conjunction with the Austrian government. She went on to carefully spell out the legal justifications for the decision: that in emergency situations EU agreements allow for nations to make unilateral decisions.

Sharp drop in asylum-seekers

But things had changed since then, she continued: "This emergency situation no longer exists today. The number of new arrivals is significantly lower, which is why the same legal situation as before 2015 applies again today."

The claim tallies with official figures, which show that the number of people seeking asylum in Germany had dropped dramatically in the last two years.

Merkel's spokesman Steffen Seibert has pinned a tweet to his official account for the past week which shows that asylum applications dropped from 302,200 from January to May in 2016 to 68,400 in the same period this year. Another graph shows that the number of arrivals by sea to the EU's outer borders have dropped from 206,500 in 2016 to 32,800 this year.


Benjamin Knight Kommentarbild PROVISORISCH
Ben Knight Ben Knight is a journalist in Berlin who mainly writes about German politics.@BenWernerKnight