Pressure grows on Merkel to tighten refugee policies
BERLIN (AP) — Pressure grew on Chancellor Angela Merkel from the right wing of her conservative bloc Thursday to tighten Germany’s refugee policies and allow some migrants to be turned away at the borders. It was a major challenge to her authority, echoing wider European disagreements on how to deal with the huge numbers of asylum-seekers.
Interior Minister Horst Seehofer has proposed turning back refugees who have already registered in other European countries, as part of a lengthy “master plan” to curb unauthorized immigration. He also wants to block migrants whose asylum applications in Germany have been rejected from returning to the country.
His news conference to announce the details of the plan was called off Tuesday after he and Merkel couldn’t agree.
On Thursday, the leader of Seehofer’s Bavarian-only Christian Social Union in parliament said the party supported him and would not back down, and suggested they might try to force through changes at a state level. That could cause a break in the longtime alliance with Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union.
“We are in a serious, a very serious situation,” said Alexander Dobrindt, adding that the issue would be discussed in Bavaria with party leaders on Monday.
The comments came as both the CSU and Merkel’s CDU each held emergency consultations on refugee policy.
Merkel told reporters later Thursday that while a master plan was needed to reduce and regulate migration, she was in favor of a European solution and not a “unilateral” way by Germany.
“Personally, I think that illegal migration is one of the challenges for the European Union and therefore I believe that we shouldn’t act unilaterally, that we shouldn’t act without coordination and that we shouldn’t act in a way that burdens third parties involved,” Merkel said.
Germany has seen more than 1 million asylum seekers since 2015 and Merkel has acknowledged the need to improve systems and strengthen the European Union’s external borders. But she argues that turning migrants away at the borders could violate European regulations, and potentially increase pressure on countries like Italy and Greece.
Migrant numbers have declined steeply in the past two years, but Germany is still registering about 11,000 new asylum-seekers per month.
Merkel has been insisting on a European solution to the issue rather than an ad hoc national approach like Hungary’s decision to close its borders at the height of the crisis in 2015.
Dobrint insisted that the CSU did not object to European solutions, but that action was needed more quickly “in order to restore order on the borders.”
Seehofer was a leading critic of Merkel’s welcoming stance in 2015 and has been taking an increasingly hard line ahead of Bavarian state elections this fall.
He’s now started to draw support for his ideas from Merkel’s own party, as well as from other countries.
Both Austria and Italy have seen parties with strong anti-migrant policies come to power since 2015, when Europe experienced a sharp rise in the number of people seeking shelter from conflicts and economic hardship elsewhere in the world.
On Wednesday in Berlin after meeting with Seehofer, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz voiced support for his ideas, saying it made sense for Rome, Vienna and Berlin to work together on the migration issue.
“In our view, we need an ‘axis of the willing’ in the fight against illegal migration,” Kurz, whose country takes over the EU’s rotating presidency July 1, told reporters.
On Thursday in Vienna, Kurz spoke about the importance of securing Europe’s external borders and again suggested he was leaning toward national solutions.
“It is important that the governments and not the smugglers decide who comes to Europe,′ he said.
As Merkel sought to find a compromise with Seehofer, the top-selling Bild newspaper reported that a three-hour crisis meeting ended just before midnight Wednesday without a resolution. In the meeting, Seehofer reportedly insisted that if Merkel adopted his solution for Germany, it would strengthen her hand in negotiating at the European level.
Merkel’s party signaled Thursday that they may be edging toward a solution, saying in a statement that people whose asylum applications have already been rejected by Germany should be turned away if they try to re-enter.
It also said it supported Merkel’s initiative to allow for the return of migrants who had already applied for asylum elsewhere “in agreement with the countries most strongly affected by migration pressure within the context of the European Council.”
Kirsten Grieshaber contributed reporting.