Merkel Stands by Stance on Refugees After Losses in State Polls

  • Anti-immigration AfD party surges to record in three elections
  • Merkel's Bavarian ally says can't return to business as usual

Anti-Establishment Vote Punishes Merkel Over Immigration

German Chancellor Angela Merkel stood by her embattled approach to Europe’s refugee crisis against renewed calls by party allies to change course after her Christian Democratic Union suffered losses and an anti-immigration party surged in three state elections.

QuickTake Angela Merkel

“Fundamentally, I’ll continue to pursue this the same way I’ve done over the last months,” Merkel said Monday after a her party’s executive board met in Berlin to review the previous night’s results. “I think the stance is the right one and I don’t think it was placed into question today.”

While the chancellor said the losses, including defeats by the Greens in Baden-Wuerttemberg and by the Social Democrats in Rhineland-Palatinate, represented a “difficult day” for the party, she said she’ll persist in seeking long-term solutions to the refugee influx on the European level and with Turkey’s government. That was rejected by Bavarian Premier Horst Seehofer, Merkel’s chief antagonist at home, who said she couldn’t just plow ahead as if nothing had happened.

As Merkel struggles to forge a common line with European Union allies ahead of a summit in Brussels this week, she faces an increasingly splintered political landscape at home. Exit polls suggest the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany, or AfD, drained voters from the CDU on Sunday with its campaign against Merkel’s open-border policy, winning more than 24 percent of the vote in the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt and more than 10 percent in the two western contests.

Industry Reacts

Ulrich Grillo, head of the nation’s BDI industry federation, called the AfD “a protest party with no competence on the issues” and said its surge may harm the global reputation of German companies. The government’s Economy Ministry doesn’t share that concern, spokeswoman Beate Braams told reporters in Berlin. Germany’s DAX Index rose 1.7 percent to 9,998.93 points as of 4:24 p.m. in Frankfurt.

Merkel said her goal remains strengthening the EU’s external borders, notably in Greece, and restoring Europe’s system of passport-free commerce and travel, known as the Schengen area. She acknowledged that voters determined that “a sustainable resolution isn’t there yet” for the refugee crisis and cited the refugee bottleneck in Greece caused by border closings to the north from Austria through the Balkans.

“I’m not disputing the fact that the closure of the Balkan passage has resulted in the reduction in the influx,” Merkel said. “But that the situation isn’t exactly sustainable, you can see from the pictures from Greece every day.”

’Disastrous’ Result

Bavaria’s Seehofer, who heads the CDU’s Bavarian sister party, called the election outcome “disastrous.”

“The response to this result is not simply to say that the policy is correct and we don’t need to change anything,” said Seehofer, whose state is the main German entry point for refugees. “We in the CSU want this to be corrected.”

Support for Merkel’s CDU tumbled across the board in the triple contest, dubbed Super Sunday in the country’s media. Surveys showed that voters’ biggest concern is Europe’s refugee crisis and its impact on Germany after about 1 million asylum seekers, the most since World War II, arrived last year.

“I don’t see the election result as an existential problem for the CDU, but I do see it as a problem,” Merkel said.

Identity Fears

The refugee issue is reverberating around the EU, replacing the euro-area’s debt woes as the most significant in a series of crises chipping away at the 28-member bloc’s political and economic cohesion. Bitter disagreements between capitals are stoking fears that border-free travel and commerce -- one of the EU’s signature achievements along with the single currency -- will be suspended. An associated rise in populism is eroding support for established parties across the region, making coalition-building increasingly difficult from Spain to Ireland.

AfD, which has now won seats in half of Germany’s 16 regional assemblies, led the backlash against Merkel’s policy and shows the country is no longer immune to the allure of right-wing populism. The party, founded three years ago, advocates restrictions on asylum and closing Germany’s border. AfD is currently polling at 10 percent or more nationally.

Frauke Petry, the AfD’s co-leader, said her party captured voter anxiety over the influx of mostly Muslim asylum seekers from countries such as war-torn Syria. Citing public fears of crime by foreigners, Petry referred to “an ethnicization of violence in Germany.”

“These are developments that worry us and where we have to discuss openly where they’re coming from,” Petry told reporters in Berlin on Monday. “We’ve done that and voters appreciated that.”

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