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Germany delays stricter asylum rules

June 12, 2018

Interior Minister Horst Seehofer's new "migration master plan" for Germany was set to be published on Tuesday. At the last moment, apparently amid disagreement with Chancellor Angela Merkel, it has been postponed.

German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, left, talks to German Chancellor Angela Merkel
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/M. Schreiber

Germany's conservatives have announced a delay to their new "migration master plan." The precise reason for the delay was not clear, with the Interior Ministry merely saying late Monday that some issues still needed to be agreed.

Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, of Bavaria's Christian Social Union (CSU) party, was expected to present a 63-point plan on migration and asylum rules to other parties on Tuesday, but seemingly couldn't get the green light from Chancellor Angela Merkel, leader of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

Read more: Bavaria plans tougher approach to asylum-seekers in Germany

According to a report in Germany's mass-circulation daily Bild, the pair disagreed over whether or not to send people away at Germany's border if they had already been refused asylum, or had applied for asylum, elsewhere in the EU. That sticking point is fundamental, since turning people away at Germany's border could potentially disrupt the Dublin agreement, which regulates asylum policy across the European Union.

"I have a responsibility for this country, namely to steer and maintain order. And I cannot postpone it until hell freezes over," Seehofer said. He insisted that Germany's asylum system needed a total overhaul in order to "win back trust." He also said that the difference between his and Merkel's position came down to just one of the 63 points - the issue of sending people away at the border.

That is likely to be a problem for Germany's southern neighbor, Austria, whose Chancellor Sebastian Kurz is in Berlin on Tuesday - and will attend a hastily arranged meeting with Seehofer on Wednesday. 

Seehofer's plan to simply turn people away at the German border would potentially contravene the formal Dublin procedure meant to determine which EU country is responsible for a particular asylum application.

This is often, but not always, the member state that the applicant first entered the EU. If for instance a migrant, especially an unaccompanied minor, has family members in Germany, then he or she may have a right to apply for asylum there - and the Dublin procedure is meant to determine that.

If, as Seehofer's plan foresees, Germany were to disregard its obligation to the Dublin procedure and turn people away at an internal EU border, then critics fear that other states could follow suit, leading to a situation in which the responsibility for dealing with asylum applications is simply pushed from one state to the next.

On Tuesday, Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini said he and Seehofer would jointly present a plan to protect EU's borders. The two ministers are in "full agreement" on security and immigration, and would act "also with the aim of wasting no more time," according to Italian officials.

Salvini also said he was set to visit Seehofer in Berlin.

Inner government strife

The issue of turning migrants away also causing a row with the third part of Germany's governing coalition, the Social Democrats (SPD). Reacting to what they called the "disastrous" image being presented by the two conservative allies, the SPD said they were coming up with their own plan to deal with migration and asylum procedures.

"Those who want concrete proposals on asylum cannot rely on Seehofer and the CSU. That's why the SPD is now developing its own migration concept," said deputy SPD leader Ralf Stegner. 

Another major SPD figure, Vice Chancellor and Finance Minister Olaf Scholz, insisted that the any government asylum policy would have to preserve free movement within the EU - even if the EU's external borders should be protected. "We have to make sure that those seeking protection from persecution can find protection in this country," Scholz told the RND newspaper network. 

Other top SPD figures, such as Lower Saxony Interior Minister Boris Pistorius, warned Seehofer against making unilateral decisions without consulting with other European countries and hashing out a plan for fair distribution of asylum applications at a European level.

Asylum procedures under scrutiny

Seehofer has been critical of Merkel's refugee and immigration policies, which allowed over 1 million asylum seekers into the country since 2015, though her government has since progressively tightened restrictions on asylum seekers. 

Now, after taking control of the Interior Ministry, Seehofer is trying to push the government even further to the right and regain the ground conservative parties lost to the insurgent Alternative for Germany (AfD) in the 2017 election. His CSU is facing a challenge from the AfD in a regional election in Bavaria in October. 

Seehofer's migration plan lays out stricter immigration rules and faster deportation of failed asylum seekers.

Germany's existing asylum and migration procedures are back in the spotlight after the rape and murder of a 14-year old German girl, allegedly by an Iraqi refugee, in Wiesbaden last month.

Refugee rights organizations see Seehofer's plan as a fundamental attack on asylum laws in Europe. "It's about the fundamental question of whether the EU will develop into a law-free zone or considers itself a community of values and laws," Pro Asyl head Günter Burkhardt said in a statement. "Seehofer's plan would leave asylum-seekers defenseless, drive the destruction of the rule of law, and finally help to undermine the European project."

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Benjamin Knight Kommentarbild PROVISORISCH
Ben Knight Ben Knight is a journalist in Berlin who mainly writes about German politics.@BenWernerKnight