Merkel Talks on Refugees Fail to Bridge German Coalition Divide

  • German coalition party leaders to reconvene on Thursday
  • Merkel confronts increasing isolation over her refugee stance

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s weekend talks with fellow party leaders failed to identify a common coalition stance on tackling the refugees crisis, risking further discord over her handling of the biggest influx of migrants since World War II. 

Just back from a two-day trip to China, where the strain of the spiraling turmoil began to show, Merkel met Saturday evening with Horst Seehofer, the Bavarian state premier and Christian Social Union party chief who has demanded she stem the flow of as many as a million people into Germany this year. The two then convened Sunday with Social Democratic Party leader Sigmar Gabriel, who opposes caps on refugees.

The coalition leaders discussed all aspects of the refugees situation in what Steffen Seibert, Merkel’s chief spokesman, said were “constructive” talks. While there was agreement on many points, issues remain open, and the three party heads will meet again to discuss the crisis further on Thursday, Seibert said in an e-mailed statement.

As Merkel seeks to defuse the political unrest over her open-door refugee policy, she also confronts waning public approval for her insistence that Germany has a moral and legal obligation to protect all those seeking shelter from war and oppression. Backing for her Christian Democratic Union-led bloc slipped two percentage points to 36 percent this week, down from an August peak of 43 percent, according to a weekly poll carried out by Forsa.

“Support for Merkel is dropping,” Andrea Roemmele, a political scientist at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin, said in an interview. “There is still huge potential for civil society to help and support, but she has to do something.” 

While rumblings have been more muted from within her CDU party, her chief critic has been Seehofer, who heads the CDU’s Bavarian sister party. Bavaria is the main entrance point to Germany for the refugees pouring over the border from Austria. 

Seehofer said the Bavarian state government would take unspecified action if Merkel didn’t meet his demands by Sunday to curb the number of migrants. Merkel has rejected caps on asylum seekers.

Among the unresolved matters is the concept of so-called transit zones, according to Seibert. Experts from the federal government and the states will work on the topic before the three meet again Thursday ahead of a conference of German state premiers, he said.

Proposed by the CSU, transit zones along the border would aim to filter out economic migrants from those such as Syrian refugees fleeing war with a genuine claim to asylum. Gabriel dismissed the concept as “inappropriate” and legally doubtful.

“Rather than huge and uncontrollable prison zones on the country’s borders, we need lots of registration and immigration centers inside Germany,” Gabriel told a party meeting on Saturday, according to the SPD website.

Creeping Isolation

Even as she faces accusations from party allies that her policies have triggered an unsustainable wave of migrants, Merkel is in no immediate political danger from lawmakers who don’t have any appetite to topple her and seek a successor. Still, the chancellor faces creeping isolation as a public initially lining up to welcome refugees begins to fret over the ever-mounting number of newcomers.

As a “super incumbent,” Merkel will be able to parry threats coming from the CSU and emerging from within her party, Roemmele said. “What she cannot lose is public support.” 

Merkel has sought to sidestep the domestic squabbling, focusing on the geopolitical dimension of the region’s refugee crisis, which has been compounded by the civil war in Syria and exposed the 28-member European Union’s inability to settle on a strategy for responding to it.

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