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German refugee row exposes party differences

October 31, 2015

Leaders within Angela Merkel's three-party coalition are approaching talks amid a hefty pro-and-contra row over refugees. Merkel insists that Germany can cope, despite denials from Bavarian allies turned critics.

Chancellor Angela Merkel with Gabriel und Seehofer
Image: Getty Images/C. Koall

Sunday's intended summit between Merkel, Social Democrat vice-chancellor Sigmar Gabriel and Bavarian leader Horst Seehofer follows clamor by the latter's Christian Social Union (CSU) party that she stop the flow of migrants.

The Bavarian's anti-refugee pitch to arch-conservative voters prompted warnings from Gabriel's center-left Social Democrats (SPD) that Seehofer was endangering the government formed in 2013 when Merkel was re-elected.

Seehofer's CSU colleague, Bavarian finance minister Markus Söder had on Friday again called for the erection of "transit zones" along Germany's Bavarian-Austrian border, where each day thousands of refugees arrive.

CSU Markus Söder Horst Seehofer
Establish transit zones, says Söder (R)Image: Reuters/W. Rattay

"Here it's about the German folk," said Söder, claiming that Germany's legal system was close to "capitulation" and instead needed border transit zones where experts could make rapid decisions to expel or allow asylum seekers to stay.

Rhetorical outbursts

Ahead of preparatory talks on Saturday, SPD Justice Minister Heiko Mass accused Seehofer, who is also Bavarian premier, and other right-wingers such as Söder of directing rhetorical outbursts at migrants.

"Populist brawling doesn't solve a single problem," Maas said, adding that no-one was denying German's difficulties in hosting up to a million new arrivals this year.

SPD deputy leader Ralf Stegner rejected conservative calls for airport-like transit zones, saying: "It won't come about in that form."

Stegner added, however, that the SPD was in favor of quicker registrations and processing of individual applications for asylum.

On Saturday, federal police said 9327 refugees and asylum seekers had entered Germany on Friday, mostly via five border crossings from Austria into Bavaria.

SPD's Fahimi steps aside

Amid the verbal ructions, Gabriel announced on Saturday that the SPD's general secretary Yasmin Fahimi, an experienced trade unionist, was switching to the SPD-run labor ministry so the party could find a new campaigner to head the Social Democrat's federal election campaign for 2017.

On Friday, Fahimi had described the inner-coalition row as "Casper theater," a German expression for a "Punch and Judy" show.

Praise for Merkel

Fresh praise for Merkel's calls to German society to welcome refugees came Saturday from the prominent Hanover Protestant theologian Margot Käßmann.

"Christian charity was "not limited to people who speak my language or have my religion," said the former head of Germany's EKD protestant churches.

"Many great things" were being offered by church communities to make refugees feel at home, Käßmann said, and no-one, either German or guest, was going hungry.

Stoking fears over refugees was "absolutely irresponsible" for a serious politician, she told the magazine "Heute," referring to Seehofer.

"I have never had such a high respect for Angela Merkel as in this moment," Käßmann added.

CDU's Laschet calls for calm

An end to criticism over Merkel's open borders refugee policy was demanded by Armin Laschet, a deputy leader from North Rhine-Westphalia within Merkel's own Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party.

Ex-Bischöfin Margot Käßmann
Great things being done for refugees, says KäßmannImage: picture-alliance/dpa

"Dispute among democrats only helps the far-right populists in the end," Laschet said, adding that the debate obscured hasty tightening of asylum law passed by Germany's federal parliament, the Bundestag.

Referring to Seehofer's demand that Merkel reverse her policy by Sunday, Laschet said: "In such a situation one must keep calm and not each day make a new suggestion that only confuses people."

Opposition round on Seehofer

Opposition Greens parliamentary co-leader Anton Hofreiter called on Merkel and Gabriel not to submit to Seehofer's rhetoric, saying Germany must continue to focus on a humane refugee policy by assisting people in distress instead of closing itself off.

Opposition Left party co-leader Sahra Wagenknecht claimed Merkel's grand coalition government was "noticeably nearing its end."

Germany needed a federal government that took responsibility instead of leaving much of work in caring for refugees to its municipalities, she said.

Far-right sniffing chance?

Germany's prominent political magazine "Cicero" warned that right-wing and left-wing extremists might exploit frustrations to create a cross-ideological front based on anti-western and anti-liberal resentments.

"It would be a miracle, when these persons - in the view of the political mood in this country - don't sniff their chance," wrote Cicero commentator Alexander Grau.

He was referring to a year of protests in Dresden by the anti-immigrant movement PEGIDA and ructions within the euro-skeptic Alternative for Germany (AfP) party.

ipj/jm (dpa, AFP, epd, Reuters)