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German government steps on the gas

Sabine Kinkartz, BerlinSeptember 7, 2015

How will Germany handle the great number of refugees coming to the country? Politicians are oscillating between hope and realism. They want to help with more money and personnel, but they also want more restrictions

Merkel and Gabriel at press conference REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch
Image: Reuters/F. Bensch

When Germany's chancellor and her deputy make public appearances that have not been planned far in advance, it means something important has come up.

"We have a moving - even breathtaking - weekend behind us," said Angela Merkel, speaking in the chancellery on Monday morning. She was not only alluding to the arrival of 20,000 refugees in Germany on Saturday and Sunday, but also acknowledging that the influx of people seeking help and protection will not let up any time soon.

How will the country deal with the situation? How can hundreds of thousands of people be accommodated, cared for and integrated into German society? That is what the heads of the ruling Christian Democrats (CDU), Christian Social Union (CSU) and Social Democrats (SPD) discussed in the chancellery on Sunday evening.

A day later, Angela Merkel and Sigmar Gabriel were available for questions. "I think that yesterday was probably one of the most important meetings in the coalition committee," said SPD leader Gabriel, describing the arrival of the refugees as "the country's greatest challenge since reunification." The chancellor spoke of a "major effort" and "crisis management," but also of "responsibility" and "solidarity."

Planned changes

Together with the CSU, the coalition parties have agreed to a series of measures that will change refugee and asylum policy. The government budget in 2016 will include an added three billion euros for housing and care. Another three billion will be provided to the German states and municipalities. The federal government and the state governments are set to determine exactly how the money will be spent at a summit meeting on September 24.

Refugees at Munich railway station CHRISTOF STACHE/AFP/Getty Images
The journey is not completely over: refugees arrive in MunichImage: Getty Images/AFP/C. Stache

The coalition partners want to move from providing monetary assistance toward granting non-cash benefits in preliminary reception centers. Bavaria's CSU was particularly adamant on this point. "Granting cash is actually an incentive for people to come to Germany because many other countries - in Europe, as well- don't have that," argues Gerda Hasselfeldt, the head of the CSU parliamentary party. Such "wrong incentives" must be avoided, she says.

More safe countries of origin

The list of so-called "safe countries of origin" is to be expanded to include the Balkan nations of Albania, Kosovo and Montenegro. Asylum applicants from the western Balkan countries are, as a rule, to be made to stay in preliminary reception centers, where the federal government will help set up winter-proof accommodation for 150,000 people. The maximum length of stay for the refugees there is to be extended from three to six months. The refugees are to be obliged to remain in residence there for that period.

Applicants who have been rejected are to be deported to their home countries more quickly than they have been in the past. "Whoever can be shown to be ineligible for permanent residency must leave the country," the chancellor said, and also announced that social benefits for those subject to deportation will be reduced. But the federal government is also planning a type of mini-immigration law for people from the Balkans. "People from these states who can provide evidence of employment or a training position will be able to work here," the chancellor said.

Macedonian policeman chasing refugee with a truncheon REUTERS/Stoyan Nenov
Refugees in Gevelija, Macedonia: Europe - a continent with common values?Image: Reuters/S. Nenov

Merkel puts pressure on the other EU countries

The CDU/CSU and SPD want to create an additional 3,000 jobs in the federal police force. A new law on accelerated procedures will advance the construction of refugee accommodation and allow departures from current regulations. In view of the growing need for housing, the coalition has pledged to promote the construction of more social housing. Angela Merkel spoke of a "comprehensive plan for the challenges we face," and announced that the legislative changes will be put to both the upper and lower houses of parliament in October.

The planned measures could cost up to ten billion euros in the coming years. "We know that we moved fast when it came to saving the banks," the chancellor said. "I think we should move just as quickly when it comes to taking measures to respond to this challenge." But Merkel also emphatically demanded solidarity within the European Union and said the refugees had to be fairly distributed throughout the bloc. "This is urgent. Germany is a country willing to receive the refugees, but other EU states can also accept them and protect them from persecution and civil war."

Not just Germany, Austria and Sweden

Merkel left no doubt that she would not back down on this matter. She said she did not believe in condemning one another, but nonetheless warned: "Some claim that they have little to do with this. In the long run, this attitude will not bear up." In the case of recalcitrant countries, even the EU might start "thinking along different lines," she said when asked whether coercive measures against such nations were imaginable.

"Of course we will be able to handle the reception of 800,000 refugees this year, provide them with housing and integrate them," Sigmar Gabriel said, noting that Germany was an economically powerful country. "But it is also clear that this situation cannot continue to repeat itself every year in the long term." He warned that the EU needed a common refugee policy and had to do something so that the influx of people coming from crisis regions did not grow drastically, as had been the case in the past days and weeks.

Fire engine with firemen on ladder inspecting damage to roof of a refugee shelter Photo: Sebastian Kahnert/dpa
Arson attacks on refugee shelters: not everyone in Germany is happy about the new challengeImage: picture-alliance/dpa/S. Kahnert

Preventing disappointment

Gabriel said he viewed the current challenges with a mixture of "hope and realism." He was hopeful, he said, because so many citizens were showing "a magnificent solidarity in their efforts to help people in need." He also praised the public services sector for showing a willingness and commitment that shattered every negative preconception about this group of professionals. "The citizens' welcome has created an image of Germany that can even make us a little proud of our country," said the chancellor, and Gabriel emphatically agreed.

Despite the pride, the politicians warned people not to turn a blind eye to what will happen in Germany in the coming months. There will be conflicts, they said; society will be challenged by the sheer number of refugees and the great number of tasks to be carried out. "The more openly we talk about the fact that there are also people with concerns and that there are fears we will have conflicts in this country, the more it will help us to realistically cope with it all from the outset and also avoid disappointments," Sigmar Gabriel said.