Merkel Buys Time on Refugees After Defusing Coalition Spat

  • Chancellor turns to Europe after negotiating coalition deal
  • Merkel approval ratings slid after New Year's Eve assaults

German Chancellor Angela Merkel won time to push for a Europewide solution to the region’s refugee crisis after securing a deal to defuse a spat with her coalition partners that threatened to uproot her from office.

The pact between Merkel’s Christian Democratic-led bloc and the Social Democrats will ease deportations and restrict family reunions for asylum seekers who make their way to Germany. Still, Merkel’s pledge to reduce the number of newcomers in 2016 will hinge on persuading Turkey and European Union member states to act. She’s likely to discuss the crisis Friday with Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi when they meet in Berlin.

“I feel fortified following the results of today,” Merkel said at a press conference late Thursday in Berlin after a meeting with coalition leaders and Germany’s state premiers. “We are getting a lot of things accomplished.”

The options for the beleaguered chancellor in the 28-member EU are narrowing as Sweden and Denmark tighten their borders, Austria seeks to impose a cap on migration and eastern European member states refuse to take in migrants. Merkel is pushing Renzi to set up EU processing centers for refugees arriving on Italy’s shores, while the Italian leader has accused the chancellor of focusing too much on French President Francois Hollande in seeking solutions.

“Of course I’d be grateful if Angela and Francois could solve all the problems, but usually it doesn’t work like that,” Renzi told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper this week.

Growing Pressure

With public backing for the chancellor’s open-door policy waning in Germany and the stumbling EU response, Merkel was under growing pressure to resolve a political brawl in her three-party coalition that intensified after New Year’s Eve sexual assaults on women in Cologne. Some 40 percent of Germans want Merkel to resign for her handling of the crisis, according to an Insa poll for Focus magazine published Friday.

The deal, meant to reduce the inflow of asylum seekers after more than 1 million poured in last year, expands the list of countries deemed safe for refugees to return to include Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria and bars families of some refugees from joining them in Germany for two years.

Merkel hammered out the agreement with Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, head of the Social Democrats, and Bavarian Premier Horst Seehofer, who runs the Christian Social Union, after weeks of feuding over how to handle the influx. The three leaders now have to sell the agreement to their constituencies in order to get it through parliament.

Lawsuit Threat

Looming over Thursday’s meeting at the chancellery was a threat by the CSU, the Bavarian sister party to Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, to challenge the chancellor’s refugee policy in Germany’s constitutional court. That threat prompted the first public warning this week by a senior politician from the Social Democrats that the coalition could collapse.

Seehofer, who governs the state where refugees enter Germany from Austria, has become Merkel’s chief antagonist. While Merkel insists on the country’s moral and legal obligation to shelter refugees and a broader EU plan, Seehofer has called for a cap on migration -- and threatened the legal challenge if Merkel doesn’t change course.

“We want this coalition, and for this coalition to succeed,” Seehofer said Friday in Berlin. “Yesterday was a good day. Decisions were made that were in part overdue and that will bring us a good ways forward.”

Germany’s stance is under growing pressure from other EU countries that are seeking to limit migration, such as Sweden and Austria.

In Sweden, which has tightened border controls as the country struggles with the influx, the government said Thursday that it may reject almost half of the 163,000 asylum seekers who entered the country last year. The Swedish Migration Agency will examine ways to return migrants either to their home countries or the European country where they first arrived.

EU leaders will gather in three weeks in Brussels where the crisis will be one of the topics on the agenda.

“I’m confident that at the summit in February we’ll be able to get results that work toward the goal of reducing the number of refugees,” Volker Kauder, the parliamentary leader of Merkel’s bloc, told reporters on Friday.

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