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Migrant Discussion

Jefferson ChaseSeptember 20, 2016

Germany's conservative parties seem to be headed toward consensus on the refugee issue. At issue is whether Germany should impose a cap on asylum seekers. But will a compromise really reestablish harmony and security?

Deutschland CSU-Logo & Deutschlandfahne - Parteizentrale in München
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/S. Hoppe

One day after Chancellor Angela Merkel admitted that mistakes were made during last year's refugee crisis, leaders of the Christian Social Union (CSU) - the Bavarian sister party of Merkel's CDU - were stressing their common ground.

Talking to reporters in Berlin on Tuesday, chairwoman of the Bundestag group CSU parliamentarians Gerda Hasselfeldt said that both conservative parties shared a desire to limit refugees from "other cultural areas." But she indicated flexibility vis-à-vis the concept of a cap.

"I personally am not interested in specifying the figure as an absolute upper limit, a figure we should strive toward or a figure of orientation," Hasselfeldt said. "We can discuss that."

She said 200,000 was a figure that Germans "had experience with for many decades." But she herself implied that any hard or soft upper national limit would probably only work within a greater European context, for instance, with the introduction of quota for the number of refugees all EU states would be required to take.

Bavarian Finance Minister Markus Söder echoed those sentiments. But CSU chairman Horst Seehofer was more reserved. Seehöfer, currently attending a closed-doors party conference, was cited by a participant as saying that the definitive breakthrough had yet to be achieved.

Deutschland Spitzentreffen der Koaliton im Kanzleramt ARCHIV
Merkel and Seehofer have been at odds over refugeesImage: imago/ZUMA Press

Seehofer has blamed the CDU's poor showing in recent regional elections on Merkel's welcoming policy toward refugees and called for an upper limit of asylum seekers allowed to stay in Germany.

Could a compromise on the cap solve the quarrels within the conservative camp in Germany - and perhaps the perceived problems created by the arrival of 1.1 million migrants in the country last year? A look across Germany's southern border might suggest some answers.

The case of Austria

In January, Austria controversially capped the number of asylum seekers it will accept in 2016 at 37,500. Has the limit fulfilled its purpose? Vienna sociologist and migration expert Kenan Güngör says says that the cap may indeed have had a positive domestic psychological effect.

"Here the idea was to reassure the majority of the population that the situation was under control," Güngör told Deutsche Welle. "In the first instance, it was about telling the populace that this wasn't open end - that there was a limit at some point. I think it was a social and psychological moment."

Deutschland Flüchtlinge bei Wegscheid
Some 88,000 people applied for Austrian asylum in 2015Image: picture-alliance/dpa/S. Kahnert

In terms of foreign policy, Güngör said, the idea was to put pressure on other countries to tighten border controls as well. That's more problematic.

"I think they're hoping for the sort of domino effect we had last year, where if we tighten up our borders, Hungary will follow suit, and the Balkan states will say categorically that they're not accepting any more people," Güngör said. "The idea is that the 'backlash' - so to speak - stretches all the way down to Greece. The problem is that in order to comply with the European Convention on Human Rights, people at the border have to be given a hearing. And what do we do if Hungary says: we're not taking them (rejected asylum seekers) either?"

The problems with the limit, though, start with determining how many people have actually arrived.

The numbers question

In mid-July, various Austrian newspapers reported that by the start of that month 22,315 people (or roughly 60 percent of the 2016 quota) had applied for asylum in the country. But Güngör says that figure may not be reliable.

"There are various reports," Güngör told DW. "There's an interesting discussion about how many people we actually have. The interior ministry has different figures than the media. The Social Democratic government has a different figure than the conservative party here."

Österreich Bahnhof Nickelsdorf Flüchtlinge
It's unclear what will happen if the Austrian limit is reachedImage: Reuters/H.-P. Bader

And even if Vienna can collect reliable data, it's unclear precisely what the government's concrete reaction to it should be.

"The general consensus is that the upper limit will be very difficult to put into effect once it's been reached," he said. "Then there's the following issue: Once the limit has been reached, it becomes an official emergency situation, which is to be handled without recourse to the normal parliamentary legislation so that the government can react more quickly. The question here is whether the emergency is the result of too many people coming here or the result of politics itself."

The ambivalence of the situation in Austria recurs elsewhere in Europe. Britain, for instance, has a policy of limiting net immigration to less than 100,000 people a year. But critics say the limit for skilled migrants of 21,700 has been harmful to the British economy. And a report published by London's Institute for Fiscal Studies on June 14, 2016 concluded that Britain missed its overall target of 100,000 "by a country mile."

The introduction of a nominal cap on refugees might help smooth relations between the CDU and the CSU. But it alone will hardly provide a solution to the social tension caused by the influx of migrants.