Merkel Reasserts Control as Rebellion Over Refugees Fades

  • Chancellor to meet with party leaders and state premiers
  • SPD party ally says coalition not in danger over turmoil

German Chancellor Angela Merkel may have defused one of the biggest bust-ups of her third-term coalition after quelling a political revolt from her Bavarian allies over her handling of the refugee crisis.

A nascent deal reached this week indicates Merkel is reasserting her control over the domestic political drift Germany has witnessed recently amid coalition sniping that put her chancellorship in question. While she has said many external factors will determine whether the flow of refugees can be stemmed -- from government action in Turkey to a diplomatic solution to end the war in Syria -- Merkel can also take heart from the latest polling that suggests her party’s sliding support has halted.

“There were some threats, but Merkel treated it quite calmly,” said Manfred Guellner, head of Berlin-based pollster Forsa, adding that her party’s poll numbers have probably reached the bottom. “As far as power brokers in Berlin are concerned, nobody at the moment wants to risk the coalition in any serious way.”

The chancellor struck the agreement with her chief internal critic, Bavarian Premier Horst Seehofer, removing his threat of unilateral action to halt the influx of refugees. Merkel and Seehofer will meet Thursday with Sigmar Gabriel -- head of junior coalition partner, the Social Democrats -- to hammer out a final deal. All three have signaled in the last two days that they’re aiming to put the dispute behind them.

“We will see if we can find common ground,” Merkel told reporters Wednesday in Berlin. “If we don’t find an agreement, we have to continue negotiating. That wouldn’t be the first time, but everybody wants us to find a logical solution.”

Deputy Foreign Minister Michael Roth, a member of the Social Democrats, ruled out a collapse of Merkel’s government over the issue, responding to speculation that’s emerged for the first time in her 10-year chancellorship.

Wasting Time

“People don’t want to waste their time with party conflicts,” Roth told Bloomberg in an interview Tuesday. “We have to work very hard, very intensively on sustainable solutions, and that’s one of my major targets.”

Seehofer, the chairman of the Bavarian sister party of Merkel’s Christian Democrat Union, was assuaged by the chancellor’s commitment to reduce the number of refugees. Merkel said that would involve a series of measures including a political agreement with Turkey to protect that country’s border and a resolution of the civil war in Syria, rather than shutting Germany’s frontier or setting upper limits on those who can come in.

“No country in the world can accommodate a limitless flow of refugees,” Seehofer said earlier this week, responding to the numbers of refugees arriving in Bavaria from Austria, issuing the biggest challenge yet to Merkel’s open-door policy.

Speaking to business leaders in Dusseldorf Wednesday evening, Merkel reiterated the need to cut the number of asylum-seekers and tackle the refugee crisis at its source in Syria, warning that a restoration of border controls within the European Union would hit the free movement of goods and people.

‘Strengthens Europe’

“We probably need a European border guard, agreements with our neighbors and a fair distribution” of refugees in Europe, the chancellor said. “That means we need a change to the existing asylum system, but a change that strengthens Europe and not a change that weakens Europe.”

Merkel has walked a fine line in insisting that Germany has a moral and legal obligation to take in all who qualify for asylum, while warning that those who come from a country of safe origin or seek economic improvement must leave.

“We want to make the influx orderly and controlled as well as tackle the root causes for those fleeing in order to reduce the number of refugees,” she said on Tuesday.

Her accommodating stance on refugees has come at a price, with voter backing for her CDU-led bloc sliding to 36 percent from an August peak of 43 percent in a weekly Forsa poll for Stern magazine and RTL television. Support has nonetheless held steady for the last two weeks, with the latest poll being released Wednesday.

A further demand from within Merkel’s faction to set up so-called transit zones, areas on the border where new arrivals would be held and economic migrants sifted out, was rejected by the Social Democrats, who branded them “internment camps.” SPD leaders said they would, however, agree to refugee centers that didn’t entail punitive custody measures.

After SPD signals that they’re ready to strike a deal, Merkel faced little resistance and even drew some applause in a meeting Tuesday with lawmakers from her CDU-led bloc.

Along with meeting Seehofer and Gabriel, the chancellor will also gather on Thursday with the country’s 16 state premiers to discuss the crisis.

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