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EU asylum policy: Will Germany agree to get tough?

June 8, 2023

EU interior ministers are set to debate plans for stricter asylum rules. Will Germany throw a spanner in the works?

A migrant looks through a fence as others wait in a line to be registered inside a refugee camp in Kokkinotrimithia, outside Nicosia, Cyprus
The EU is debating tougher asylum measures at the bloc's external bordersImage: Petros Karadjias/AP/picture alliance

On Thursday (June 8), EU interior ministers will discuss the EU Commission's plans for stricter asylum rules. They foresee making it possible to check asylum applications at the EU's external borders.

Since the number of refugees seeking to enter the EU began to rise dramatically in 2015 and 2016, there has been an ongoing dispute over whether they should be distributed among all member states. This is one of the proposals of the EU Commission.

"We want to support and advance the European reform of the asylum system," said Chancellor Olaf Scholz on Tuesday (June 6) in Berlin.

Germany has to be on board for the Commission's reform proposals to get approved. But they are highly controversial within Scholz's center-left coalition of Social Democrats (SPD), Greens, and neoliberal Free Democrats (FDP) led by Scholz — and there is also strong criticism from the opposition.

How are German towns dealing with refugees?

Green Party soul-searching

Many Green Party politicians have a hard time accepting that refugees may be detained for weeks in facilities at the EU's external borders waiting for their applications to be processed. In their election platform ahead of the 2021 election that brought them to power, the Greens had clearly rejected such measures. 

But now that they are in government, the Green Party leadership wants to approve the proposals. This is the only realistic chance of achieving an orderly and humane distribution procedure in the EU in the foreseeable future, says Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock.

However, Baerbock said in an interview with the newspapers of the Funke-Mediengruppe that tough negotiations were underway to ensure "that families with children do not end up in such a border procedure, and that the fundamental right to asylum is not undermined." 

For many party supporters, however, this amounts to a betrayal of the Greens' traditionally refugee-friendly policies. In an open letter, some 730 party members lamented what they describe as a course of "deterrence and sealing the borders."

SPD wants to seize the momentum

Even within the chancellor's party, the SPD, there is criticism of the planned reform of the Common European Asylum System — albeit less vocally than among the Greens.

Twenty-two of 206 members of the SPD's parliamentary group in the Bundestag have signed a statement clearly rejecting the reform. It reads: "We are critical of the widespread introduction of border procedures, as they promote detention-like conditions."

Nancy Faeser
German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser wants exceptions for minors and familiesImage: KENZO TRIBOUILLARD/AFP

SPD Interior Minister Nancy Faeser, on the other hand, has for weeks now been speaking of a "historic momentum" for EU refugee policy that must be seized.

"We have a united position in the federal government," Faeser told media outlet RedaktionsNetzwerk Deutschland (RND).

As Germany's chief negotiator for this week's meeting, Faeser said she would work to ensure that children and minors could "enter the EU directly with their families and don't have to go through border procedures."

In its election platform, the SPD had called for a humanitarian and solidarity-based asylum and refugee policy in the EU. The goal, it said, was a solidarity-based distribution mechanism with a right to asylum.

FDP wants no age limits 

According to its election platform, the FDP also calls for a binding mechanism for the distribution of refugees among EU states "unless they have no discernible prospects of being allowed to stay."

If such an agreement across the EU does not come about in the foreseeable future, the FDP feels "Germany should lead the way with like-minded states."

The FDP now wants Germany to support the EU Commission's proposals and not jeopardize them by making demands for exemptions.

"Uniform rules are needed, and these can also apply to under-18-year-olds," Christian Dürr, the leader of the FDP parliamentary group in the Bundestag, told the Neue Osnabrücker Zeitung.

Conservatives back restrictions

The center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) which is Germany's largest opposition party and forms a bloc with the regional Christian Social Union (CSU) basically supports the plans to reform EU asylum laws.

For years, CDU leader Friedrich Merz has been calling for a tightening of German asylum law as well as "reception and decision centers" close to the EU's external borders. The CDU/CSU does not support any exemptions for minors, as demanded by the SPD and the Greens. 

The populist far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) is the only party represented in the German Bundestag which is not committed to the right to asylum. It wants to largely abolish the right to apply for asylum in Germany. 

The AfD rejects a common European asylum policy in principle. "An existential question such as immigration must be decided in democratic self-determination at the national level," the AfD platform says. 

The AfD has been successful in the past with its anti-refugee rhetoric and is currently polling at 18% nationwide putting it in second place with the SPD, behind the CDU/CSU. 

Far Left cries foul

The post-communist Left Party advocates liberalizing Germany's asylum policy. In a motion in the Bundestag, its parliamentary group called for restrictions to be lifted on asylum seekers in Germany being allowed to work while they wait for their applications to be processed, for them to be granted regular social benefits and unrestricted health care

Left-Party leader Martin Schirdewan told RND that the current proposals for EU border procedures are no more than a plan for deterrence, which hinges on making it possible to push back refugees at the borders more easily.

Can migration be controlled?

The road ahead

There have been numerous attempts at reforming the EU asylum regulations, but all of them have failed.

If 15 of 27 EU member states representing at least 65% of the EU's total population vote in favor of the reform proposals this Thursday, negotiations with the EU Parliament can begin. 

The dispute is then likely to continue in Germany as well — even within the ruling coalition. But the mood in the German population seems unambiguous: The latest ARD-DeutschlandTrend survey of eligible voters found that four out of five were in favor of tougher asylum procedures at the EU's external borders.

This article was originally written in German.

While you're here: Every Tuesday, DW editors round up what is happening in German politics and society. You can sign up here for the weekly email newsletter Berlin Briefing.

Peter Hille Bonn 0051
Peter Hille Peter Hille is a multimedia reporter with a strong background in African affairs@peterhille
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