Merkel Hits Back at Populists in Defense of Refugee Stance

  • German leader decries ‘polarization and populism’ in Europe
  • Merkel speaks two days after meeting of anti-EU leaders

Angela Merkel hit back at a surge in “polarization and populism” two days after the German chancellor featured as the main target of criticism by a gathering of right-wing European leaders.

Defending her refugee policy as an act of moral and legal obligation by a “state of laws,” Merkel said that Europeans must stand by principles that include offering asylum to those fleeing from war and oppression.

Angela Merkel

Photographer: Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg

“In my view it’s not helpful to try to solve the problems with polarization and populism,” Merkel said in a speech to a Catholic church group in the southern German city of Wuerzburg on Monday evening. “We have to show -- and we can show -- that we’re convinced by the fundamental principles of our country.”

Wading into an election year in which she’ll seek a fourth term in office, Merkel is confronting a wave of anti-establishment anger fueled by the influx of more than a million asylum seekers into Europe since last year. Populist leaders including Marine Le Pen, head of the National Front in France, and Geert Wilders of the Dutch Freedom Party, marked Merkel out as the main culprit for the refugee crisis at a rally in the German city of Koblenz on Saturday.

‘Rethink Europe’

Merkel over the weekend spent time reassuring supporters of her Christian Democratic Union as the Koblenz gathering echoed language used by new U.S. President Donald Trump to call for the demolition of the European elite.

At home, Merkel is trying to fend off a challenge from the anti-migration Alternative for Germany, or AfD, which has risen to third place in the polls by channeling discontent with her immigration policy. One of the party’s leaders, Frauke Petry, joined Le Pen and Wilders at the weekend meeting.

Support for Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union-led bloc fell one percentage point to 32.5 percent as backing for the AfD rose a point to 14.5 percent in the latest INSA poll for Bild newspaper. Support was unchanged for the Social Democrats, Merkel’s coalition partner, at 21 percent. The poll, conducted Jan. 20-23, had a margin of error of 2.5 percentage points.

In her speech, Merkel reaffirmed her stance that Germany is obligated by international law to offer asylum to those fleeing hardship in places like Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Eritrea -- while insisting that those who don’t qualify must leave. 

“We’re confronting a difficult task, but we must be able to bear the burden of this task. We’re a state of laws, a state that offers help and support to those who need it,” Merkel said in Wuerzburg. “But in order to continue to do that, we need to able to say to those who don’t qualify for assistance following a legal process that they have to leave our country.”

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