Embattled Merkel Backed by Schaeuble as Protest Grows

  • Lawmakers poised to present get-tough petition on refugees
  • Schaeuble hints Germany can't keep borders open alone

Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble rose to Angela Merkel’s defense as the embattled chancellor faces an organized protest by members of her party against keeping Germany open for refugees.

Schaeuble’s backing in a newspaper interview throws the weight of her most senior Cabinet member behind the chancellor after her approval rating slid to the lowest since 2011. At the same time, Schaeuble pressed Germany’s partners in the European Union to do more to secure the bloc’s outer border and sign off on 3 billion euros ($3.3 billion) in aid to Turkey, which is hosting more than 2 million Syrian refugees.

Wolfgang Schauble and Angela Merkel

Photographer: Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg

Lawmakers in Merkel’s Christian Democrat-led parliamentary bloc plan to hand in a letter at the chancellery on Monday demanding that she bar refugees arriving from other EU countries, according to a lawmaker involved in the drafting who asked not to identified because the letter isn’t public yet. While it’s unclear how many of Merkel’s 311 caucus members will sign up, the protest is focusing dissent that’s built up for months and has grown more public since mass sexual assaults in Cologne on New Year’s Eve.

“I support what the chancellor says with total conviction,” Schaeuble, Germany’s most popular politician, was quoted as saying by Sueddeutsche Zeitung in an interview. Merkel is working “to the point of exhaustion” to solve the refugee crisis and “things are moving too slowly in Europe,” he told the newspaper.

Merkel Tested

As Merkel faces the biggest crisis of her 10-year chancellorship, Schaeuble’s comments underscore that she’s still in a position of strength. Touted by some as a potential successor to Merkel should she be forced out of office, Schaeuble has rarely struck anything but a loyal tone during more than six years as her finance minister. Still, the scale of the revolt could prove to be bigger than her lawmakers’ resistance to bailouts during Europe’s debt crisis.

Merkel’s popularity is at its lowest point since October 2011, when Europe was in turmoil over efforts to keep Greece in the euro area, according to a FG Wahlen poll for ZDF television published Friday. Her Christian Democratic-led bloc slid two percentage points from last month to 37 percent, the lowest level of her third term, which began in 2013.

The EU’s financial aid to Turkey is “an important beginning,” Merkel said in her weekly video podcast published Saturday. It’s in Europe’s interest to make sure the refugee situation in Turkey improves so they don’t see a reason to move on, she said. The outcome of talks about Turkey joining the EU is open, although there’s a “a very long way" to go, Merkel said.

Record Influx

The poll numbers add to pressure on Merkel within her party bloc for tougher measures to limit the inflow of asylum seekers after a record 1.1 million arrived last year. Merkel has resisted closing the borders of Europe’s largest economy, and even now her approval rating remains higher than at her debt-crisis lows reached in 2010 and 2011.

Public sentiment on refugees has swung since the Cologne assaults, with 60 percent of respondents in the Jan. 12-14 ZDF poll saying Germany can no longer shoulder the flood of refugees, compared with 46 percent in December.

In Brussels, Schaeuble warned that Europe’s passport-free travel zone, known as the Schengen area, is on the verge of collapse because of the refugee influx. The EU would be under “tremendous” threat if Germany were to restore border controls similar to measures taken by Sweden, he told reporters.

Clock Ticking

“We can only avoid such a development if we solve the problems more quickly” and “time is running out” for EU nations to agree on aid to Turkey, Schaeuble said.
 
The warnings suggests that Schaeuble may be reprising his role during last year’s Greek bailout talks, where he dangled Greece out of the euro area while Merkel focused on securing a deal to keep Europe from splintering.

The EU says Europeans make over 1.25 billion journeys within the Schengen zone every year, which comprises 26 countries from the Barents Sea to the eastern Mediterranean, including some such as Iceland and Norway that aren’t part of the EU. Its disintegration would send the signal to markets that the European project, including the euro, may be reversible, according to analysts including Wolfango Piccoli, managing director of Teneo Intelligence in London.

“Without the freedom of movement of workers, without the freedom of the citizen to travel, the euro makes no sense,” European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said Friday.

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