German President Backs Refugee Limits in Challenge to Merkel

  • `We will not be able to take in everybody,' Gauck says
  • Austria imposes upper limit to refugees in signal to EU

German President Joachim Gauck said European policy makers need to find ways to limit the influx of refugees to bolster public support, wading into the region’s debate over how to grapple with the largest number of asylum seekers since World War II.

Limiting the influx “can be morally and politically even necessary” to preserve the ability of the state to shoulder the burden, Gauck said in a speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on Wednesday.

Joachim Gauck speaks in Davos.
Joachim Gauck speaks in Davos.
Photographer: Jean-Christophe Bott/Keystone via AP

The president’s comments add to pressure on German Chancellor Angela Merkel to reduce the influx into Europe’s biggest economy as the public’s welcome for refugees wanes and her poll ratings decline. Merkel, who has rejected calls within her party bloc to cap migration to Germany, signaled she wants to give diplomacy another month, including talks with fellow European Union leaders.

Austria’s government on Wednesday set a limit on the number of new refugees it’ll take in this year, with Chancellor Werner Faymann calling it an “emergency measure” meant to “shake up” the EU. The cap would be at 37,500 in 2016 compared with the 90,000 the Alpine republic took in last year, though the government didn’t conclude how it would enforce the measure.

Closing Borders

Gauck, whose office is mostly ceremonial, said that while there was no “magic, mathematical formula” for determining a nation’s capacity, limiting migration was part of preserving social stability and an open discussion was needed. Even so, closing national borders within the EU “surely wouldn’t be a good solution” for Germany and Europe, he said.

“Precisely because we want to protect as many as possible, we will not be able to take in everybody, as problematic and tragic as that may be,” Gauck said. “If democrats don’t want to talk about limits, populists and xenophobes will march in.”

The public mood in Germany has shifted this year after a series of sexual assaults involving migrants in Cologne and other cities on New Year’s Eve. As Sweden and Denmark tighten their borders, Europe’s project of passport-free travel has been placed in danger.

Merkel set out a timeline on Wednesday that includes talks with Turkish leaders in Berlin this week, an international conference on aid for Syrian refugees in London in early February and a summit of EU leaders starting Feb. 18 where she said the refugee crisis and Britain’s future in the EU “must play a central role.”

“After that we can make a preliminary assessment and see where we stand,” she told reporters before talks with the Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, which has been at the forefront of demanding a cap on asylum seekers. It’s her second such visit this month.

Merkel’s government is pressing the EU’s 28 member states to take on more of the burden, while negotiating with Turkey -- including a 3 billion-euro ($3.3 billion) EU aid plan -- to do more to halt the flow of migrants across the Aegean to Greece.

Eastern Snub

Gauck, 74, a former East German Lutheran pastor and dissident against the communist regime, also issued a pointed criticism of eastern European member states who have stridently opposed taking in refugees.

“I can comprehend only with difficulty when precisely those nations whose citizens, once themselves politically oppressed and who experienced solidarity, in turn withdraw their solidarity for the oppressed,” he said.

The case in favor of an open-door refugee policy got a lift from an International Monetary Fund study on Wednesday saying the European economy will receive an immediate boost as a result of the influx. Germany alone would get a 0.3 percent boost in output next year and the European Union as a whole would continue to benefit as long as leaders employ migrants with labor-market flexibility.

“The negative effects of immigrant surges tend to be short-lived and temporary,” the IMF’s Enrica Detragiache, one of the report’s authors, said in a conference call. A positive impact “should be quite immediate” thanks to the “fiscal expansion that’s being carried out to provide for the refugees,” Detragiache said.

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