The German parliament’s annual budget debate was dominated by the refugee crisis. Germany has taken in more migrants than any other EU country. But now it needs European solidarity, politicians say. Naomi Conrad reports.
As European states continue to grapple with a record influx of refugees, German Chancellor Angela Merkel renewed her demand for a compulsory, open-ended quota system for refugees among European Union countries. "We need solidarity within Europe," she told lawmakers during the lower house of parliament's annual budget debate, which was dominated by the ongoing refugee crisis.
"We need a binding agreement on a binding distribution of refugees among all member states", Merkel said. If managed well and creatively, "we can only profit" from the large number of refugees reaching Germany, she said.
According to government estimates, Germany is set to receive some 800,000 asylum requests this year - a record number and unprecedented since the end of the Second World War. This week, Social Democrat chairman Sigmar Gabriel, said Germany could tehoretically handle as many as half a million refugees annually in the coming years. On Wednesday, Gabriel sported a button claiming "Wir helfen" ("We are helping") from a campaign in the mass-circulation newspaper "Bild."
Merkel: integrating refugees national priority
But Germany, which has taken in more migrants than any other EU country and is arranging a 6 billion euro ($6.7 billion) aid package for tackling the influx, is increasingly voicing its frustration with what it perceives as a lack of solidarity from its European neighbors. Many Eastern European countries have been particularly reluctant to take in more refugees.
Europe, Merkel recalled on Wednesday morning, had been founded on the basis of universal human rights - should Europe fail to solve the refugee crisis that would be called into question. "That's what we're fighting for," Merkel said. "If we are brave and sometimes lead the way then it will become more probable that we find a European solution."
Merkel also stressed that integrating refugees into German society was a priority. Germany, she said, "must make clear what rules apply here." There would be no tolerance for parallel society or those who rejected integration, she vowed, while promising to speed up asylum procedures and fast-track deportations of those who were not eligible to stay. She was referring to refugees from the Balkans who stand very little chance of being granted asylum in Germany.
She also promised to crack down on right-wing hate crime, alluding to a anti-refugee attacks in recent weeks and months.
But opposition politicians criticized the government's response to the refugee crisis. Gregor Gysi, from the Left Party, rejected the Merkel's call for a quota system. "Refugees are people and not things that can just be distributed", he said. Instead he called for a fair division of the costs of taking in refugees among EU member states.
Opposition calls for more funds
Both Gysi and Katrin Göring-Eckardt from the opposition Green party said that the 6 billion euros the government has earmarked for refugees was far from adequate. Municipalities and towns, which in Germany's federal system are responsible for housing refugees who have been granted asylum, "need to know that they will get a fixed sum per refugee, no matter how many arrive," Göring-Eckardt said. It's a demand that municipalities have long been calling for.
The Green politician also called for a broader societal debate on the country's identity and values. "Germany will change and has changed," Göring-Eckardt said. "If we understand that as an opportunity then we might see the birth of a new Germany."
Asylum 'second best option'
But politicians from all parties agreed on one thing: that the root causes of the refugee crisis had to be dealt with. Asylum was always only the "second best solution," Thomas Oppermann from Merkel's coalition partner the Social Democrats, stressed. It was always preferable, he said, "that people don't have to flee in the first place."
Germany, Oppermann said, had ignored for too long that neighboring countries were struggling to cope with the refugee crisis. "We shouldn't be surprised that ever more people are moving on to Europe."
And as the bulk of those fleeing continue to head to Germany, politicians here agree that it's time other European countries stepped up.