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Europe's conservatives fight over Merkel's refugee speech

The refugee crisis is dividing Europe's conservative parties. The German chancellor wants to do as much as possible. But the Hungarian prime minister is calling for a hard crackdown. Bernd Riegert reports from Madrid.

Europäische Volkspartei Madrid Angela Merkel und Viktor Orban

Despite their outward geniality, Merkel and Orban are bitterly opposed over refugee policies

As usual, the European People's Party (EEP) statutory congress, held this year in Madrid, was planned as a harmonious family celebration, and as a bit of an election boost for Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, who is up for re-election on December 20. Yet, the continuing refugee crisis quickly turned the convention, held in a windowless concrete bunker next to the airport, into a spontaneous refugee summit of conservative heads of state - who were present in large numbers.

Before they officially presented their positions to the EEP's delegates, a small group of leaders met in private. Participants say that the closed door meeting was very contentious. Afterwards, on the stage in the main hall, harmony was once again the order of the day. Large blue posters emblazoned with the word "Together," showed just what the conservatives, who govern almost half of the EU's member states, were seeking.

Merkel: 'Everyone must be treated humanely'

German Chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU) maintained her principle stance that borders must remain open and that there can be no upper limit to the number of refugees and asylum seekers that the EU takes in. "Everyone that arrives in Europe has the right to be treated like a human being! We did not create the Charter of Fundamental Rights so that we could treat people from other places inhumanely," Merkel told the representatives of 75 parties from 40 countries.

Grichenland Flüchtlinge im Hafen von Piräus

Thousands of refugees arrive on the Greek islands by boat each day

She repeated her motto: "We can do it!" She also said the EU would have to work with Turkey, and restore the border between NATO partners Turkey and Greece to a "legal" state. Thousands of refugees arrive on the Greek islands by boat each day.

Merkel did not mention the chaotic situation along the Balkan route. She appealed wholeheartedly to the unity of her colleagues seated next to the stage. "We must fairly distribute the burden and the tasks among ourselves. With each contributing what they can according to their abilities and their means. It has always been that way in Europe, and that is a formula for success. Therefore, I will not stop fighting, so that we can also master this, perhaps our largest challenge in decades, in solidarity."

Orban: 'Europe is weak'

The Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban made no bones about the fact that he thinks this is the wrong policy. Orban called for better security along Europe's external borders to limit the influx of refugees. If it cannot be done in Greece, he said, then Hungary and Slovenia must do it themselves. "Today, Europe is rich and weak. That is the most dangerous of combinations," exclaimed Orban to the delegates.

He said he had nothing against Muslims, but added, "We don't have a mandate to fundamentally change European society." Addressing Chancellor Merkel, the Hungarian prime minister said that one should not make promises to refugees that one cannot keep. He went on to say that many of the immigrants did not seem to be Syrian war refugees, but rather "young men that look like an army."

The chairman of the EEP group in the European Parliament, Manfred Weber (CSU), admitted that there were tensions within his party family. "It's no different in the EEP than in the rest of Europe. We are in a tense relationship right now," Weber told DW in Madrid.

Karte Balkan Fluchtroute 20.10.2015 Englisch

Delegates have considered the idea of strengthening the EU's eternal border, working more closely with Turkey

Weber insisted that Europe help refugees. "If desperately poor nations like Jordan and Lebanon offer so many Syrians shelter then - for Pete's sake - Europe has to be able to as well. That is our primary task, to offer help." The CSU politician went on to say, however, that it simply cannot be that hundreds of thousands of people are wandering around Europe without being registered. "We have to give states back the power to control. Europe's external borders must be secured." Weber said that this did not mean setting up more borders or fences within Europe.

No multicultural society

But that is exactly what Hungary has been doing, in order to redirect the flow of refugees away from its own country and, initially, toward Croatia and now Slovenia. The Hungarian MEP György Schöpflin, from the governing Fidesz party, thinks that is perfectly fine. Hungary is simply abiding by existing European law. Hungary, he says, has not closed its borders, but is simply forcing immigrants to pass through registration centers. Anyone who wants to apply for asylum in Hungary is welcome to do so. György Schöpflin also thinks that the German chancellor's policies are wrong. "Germany has to decide. To a certain degree I can understand why Germany has been so generous. I am not sure that Germany can deal with this enormous number of people."

Speaking with DW, Schöpflin had no doubt that asylum seekers that are not Syrian war refugees should be sent back to their home countries. Hungary, he says, will not have its refugee policies dictated by Germany. "I think there is a big difference between the countries of Eastern and Western Europe. If the nations of Western Europe decide that they want a multicultural society, they can do that. We don't want that, and that is our decision."

European conservatives drafted a resolution stating that Europe could not accept millions more people. "We have a responsibility to help," said the newly re-elected president of the EEP, Joseph Daul. "But we also have the responsibility of protecting our own citizens. We cannot open the door to all refugees."

Serbien Ungarn Grenze Flüchtlinge

Merkel argued that everyone who arrives in Europe has 'the right to be treated like a human being'

In an attempt to reconcile all of these divergent views, the EEP called for resettling large numbers of Syrian refugees currently in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey to Europe. But said that people with no prospect of asylum, however, should be deported more consistently and more quickly. Asylum law as such should not be touched declared German EEP member Manfred Weber. "That is a European achievement" that we have to defend.

Pressure from the right

Ruling conservative parties in many EU countries are under increasing pressure due to the fact that the refugee crisis is strengthening populist groups on the far-right of the political spectrum: Pegida and Alternative for Germany (AfD) in Germany, Front National (FN) in France, The UK Independence Party (UKIP) in Great Britain and the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), to name but a few. MEP Manfred Weber wants to distance himself from such populists and their "simple answers." Saying conservative governments have to deal with the refugee crisis and live up to their responsibilities. "Right now it would behoove us to ignore opinion polls, and just do what has to be done."

Spain as a role model?

Spain's conservative delegation is looked at as a shining example when it comes to refugee policy. The country signed agreements with Morocco, Western Sahara and Senegal years ago. These countries receive funds and logistics help to keep immigrants from crossing to Spain. High fences were also built around the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla in Africa. Hence, Spain can keep away immigrants that attempt another route. But, of all people, it was Viktor Orban who warned delegates about the dangers of depending on other countries on the question of refugee policy. He said that Europe would become even more vulnerable if it were to now turn over responsibility for refugees to Turkey.

The President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, unceremoniously called on national leaders to end their "shameful arguments" over refugee distribution quotas. The next opportunity for that: the special summit of states along the Balkan route this coming Sunday in Brussels.

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