Merkel Denied Time to Bask in Praise as Refugee Rebels Loom

Angela Merkel Named Time Person of the Year
  • CDU party conference is stage for critics of open-door policy
  • Analysts see Merkel facing down challenge to her leadership

As German Chancellor Angela Merkel racks up praise abroad for welcoming refugees, she’s headed for a reality check from her political base at home.

A convention of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union starting Monday will take up motions to restrict the biggest influx of asylum seekers since World War II, defying the chancellor’s open-door stance. That policy led Time magazine to name Merkel its Person of the Year and prompted a swell of well-wishers on Twitter, including President Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

Angela Merkel
Angela Merkel
Photographer: Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg

While polls suggest Merkel retains overwhelming support in her party, many in the CDU are urging a cap on the number of refugees allowed into Europe’s biggest economy. After months of record inflows, this year’s arrivals reached 1 million this week.

“We also have a responsibility to our country and our citizens, whose capacity to bear burdens isn’t unlimited,” the CDU’s youth organization says in a resolution to be debated at the two-day meeting in the city of Karlsruhe. The measure advocates a refugee cap, saying “warmheartedness” shouldn’t trump “a realistic assessment.”

Merkel’s insistence that Germany has an obligation to feed and shelter people fleeing war and oppression is colliding with resistance within her coalition and among state governments and local officials who say towns and cities are near the breaking point.

Two other groups within the CDU, a caucus representing Germany’s small and midsize Mittelstand companies and a lobby for local governments, are also urging changes, including measures to dissuade migrants from heading to Germany through the Balkans.

That adds to demands by Bavarian Premier Horst Seehofer, the chairman of the CDU-affiliated Christian Social Union, to limit migration. He isn’t backing down even after Merkel pledged to reduce the influx, foremost by securing the European Union’s outer border and enlisting Turkey’s help in stemming the flow. Seehofer is scheduled to address the convention on Tuesday.

Political Capital

The Bavarian’s public rebuke of Merkel at a CSU convention in November will probably strengthen his bigger sister party’s resolve. With no obvious successor after 10 years in power, Merkel’s has a reservoir of political capital to expend on the refugee crisis.

“She’s been so firm on this that she cannot roll back,” Andrea Roemmele, a political scientist at the Hertie School in Berlin, said in an interview. “She’ll stand by her position.”

The CDU national leadership’s lead motion, presented Thursday, advocates controlling and reducing the refugee influx, while avoiding any reference to a limit. That’s in line with the Social Democratic Party, Merkel’s junior coalition partner, which criticized a cap as unworkable and xenophobic.

“We’d have to put a fence around the border and deploy the military with bayonets,” SPD leader Sigmar Gabriel, Merkel’s vice chancellor, told a convention of his party in Berlin on Thursday. “We will never do that, ever.”

Trump Attack

Support for Merkel’s CDU-CSU bloc declined one percentage point to 38 percent in a weekly Forsa poll published Wednesday. While that compared with a level of 43 percent in mid-August, it understates the broad support Merkel enjoys within the CDU, Forsa managing director Manfred Guellner said.

“The critics of Merkel’s refugee policy are the outliers,” Guellner said. “The majority of the party is much more open-minded.”

Time’s accolade on Wednesday may turn out to be a well-timed bump for Merkel, notwithstanding U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump’s criticism that she’s “ruining Germany.”

“It demonstrates to critics of her refugee policy how much respect she enjoys abroad,” Guellner said.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE