Looming Doubts Merkel's Grip on Refugee Crisis May Be Slipping
The flow of refugees into Germany is continuing and the government in Berlin has found no way to slow it. Faith in Chancellor Angela Merkel's ability to handle the problem is plunging -- especially within her own party. By SPIEGEL Staff
Sometimes, distance is good for perspective. For Angela Merkel, that perspective came in New York.
The week before last, the German chancellor flew to the Big Apple to address the United Nations summit on sustainability, women's rights and climate change. But what she took home with her was the surprising realization that Horst Seehofer actually has a lot in common with Ahmet Davutoglu and Nawaz Sharif.
Seehofer is the governor of Bavaria and the head of the conservative Christian Social Union (CSU), the sister party to Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU); Davutoglu is the prime minister of Turkey; Sharif the prime minister of Pakistan. All three have recently conveyed the same message: Merkel must get tougher in the refugee crisis.
Davutoglu asked Merkel in New York for her support for a buffer zone along the Syrian-Turkish border, where anywhere between 100,000 and 300,000 refugees from the civil-war torn country are to be accommodated. Sharif, for his part, engaged the chancellor about the escalating situation in his country and in neighboring Afghanistan. He demanded that the chancellor send Pakistani refugees back home.
'Close To the Limits of Our Possibilities'
It was only four weeks ago that the Germans cheerfully welcomed the first refugee trains as they arrived and fêted the chancellor as "Mama Merkel" for her generosity. Early on, Merkel's message to her country was: "We can do it!" Lately, though, many dispirited communities are responding with, "We're beat." Many helpers are "at wits end," says Ralf Jäger, the interior minister for the state of North Rhine-Westphalia. And with no end in sight to the influx of refugees, the mood is worsening by the day. If the inflow remains as high as it has been in the past few weeks, according to expert forecasts, some 1 million people will have arrived in Germany by the end of the year -- a greater number than ever before in the country's history.
"We in Germany are rapidly approaching the limits of our possibilities," Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), told SPIEGEL ONLINE in an interview last Friday. "Although the (country's) asylum law doesn't have an upper ceiling, there are real limits to how much pressure we can put on our cities and towns."
Concerns are growing that Germany is already there. Tensions among residents of often overcrowded refugee hostels, for example, have boiled over into violence in some facilities. Furthermore, officials from police officers to border control agents and government functionaries are desperately searching for ways to bring the number of refugees under control.
The debate is having a negative impact on Merkel's public image. A poll by Infratest Dimap for German public broadcaster ARD last Friday showed that the percentage of Germans who are "scared" about the number of refugees entering the country has increased from 38 percent in September to 51 percent today. The same poll also showed Merkel's approval rating had dropped by nine points to 54 percent, her lowest in nearly four years.
For a time, the chancellor was able to dismiss the increasingly sharp tone taken by CSU boss Seehofer against her refugee policies. CSU nagging has long been part of the two parties' partnership. But it's no longer just Seehofer. German President Joachim Gauck, who hails from the other end of the political spectrum, likewise called Merkel's refugee policy into question, warning as he did at the end of September against harboring "fantasies" on the issue.
That Gauck, who is no stranger to emotion, is now presenting himself as the voice of reason, is not without a certain amount of irony. But the president was merely expressing what many in Merkel's party are feeling. By stating that there is no "limit in the number" of refugees allowed in under Germany's asylum laws, Merkel opened the door wide without having a plan for how to close it again.
A Fateful Decision
Merkel herself has remained outwardly confident about welcoming refugees to Germany. In a long interview aired on Sunday night by public broadcaster Deutschlandradio, Merkel said: "To turn my back on this now or to complain is not my style." She also said that Germany now stands "before new challenges the scale and scope of which we have never seen before."
The impression that Merkel lacks a plan has been fueled by the circumstances surrounding the decision to reintroduce border controls in Germany in mid-September. At the time, Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière's (CDU) staff had drawn up altogether different plans. Initially, the plan under discussion had been to largely shut Germany's borders.
On Sept. 12, a Saturday, German Federal Police President Dieter Roman was told to begin preparing for that deployment order. The Austrian border was to be closed, he was told, a move which would have forced refugees to register in either Austria or Hungary and no longer in Germany. The plan led to the largest police deployment since German reunification, with all available officers being sent to the borders -- some even by helicopter. But the German government ultimately took a different path, deciding that passports would be checked, but refugees wouldn't be turned away. The government continued allowing refugees to enter the country.
Since then, thousands of people have been entering Germany each day and nobody knows how many will ultimately come. Will the number soon increase given that the situation in both Syria and Afghanistan is continuing to deteriorate? Or will the influx slowly wane because of the feared autumn storms in the Mediterranean Sea?
The assessment of Merkel's party, the Christian Democrats, is that the situation is threatening to spin out of control. That, at least, was the take-away from last Monday's meeting of the party's domestic policy experts. After a short debate, a spokesman for the working group, Stephan Mayer, asked staff members of the party's parliamentary group to leave the room. The parliamentarians wanted the freedom to speak out of earshot of any possible planted minders from the Chancellery or the Interior Ministry.
A clear atmosphere of skepticism emerged from the meeting. Mayer said that a package of legislation pertaining to asylum procedures soon to be passed in German parliament doesn't go nearly far enough. Clemens Binninger, a colleague and interior policy expert from Baden-Württemberg, seconded him, saying the decisive question is: "How can we effectively control the borders?"
'Collapse' This Winter?
It is a debate that Merkel would prefer to avoid. She fears giving the impression that the federal government doesn't have the situation under control. But there are plenty, led in recent weeks by Bavarian Governor Seehofer, who would like to establish exactly that narrative.
Just this weekend, in an interview with public broadcaster Bayerische Rundfunk in Munich, Seehofer reiterated his demand that Merkel reverse her refugee policies by restricting immigration. Without limits on the number of people entering the country, he said, the situation could be faced with a "collapse" this winter. "We cannot continue," he added, "we're overwhelmed." Bavaria is at the epicenter of the refugee crisis in Germany, with as many as 10,000 people crossing the border from Austria on peak days and 5,000 on average, according to Seehofer.
Part of his criticism of Merkel is of course politically motivated. One motive for his lashing out at the chancellor's policies last week was likely gains made by the right-wing populist Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), which saw a doubling of its votes from 15 to 30 percent a week ago in a regional election in the state of Upper Austria, which shares a border with Bavaria. Seehofer saw that as reason enough to point out Germany's "limited capacity to take people in."
It's something he has often done during the refugee crisis, but this time his opinion is shared by Christian Democratic politicians from other states in Germany. Björn Thümler, head of the CDU parliamentary group in the state legislature in Lower Saxony, claimed that the "mood among the populace in many areas had already tipped." He said the country's ability to accommodate people had nearly been reached. "What began as solidarity in many places now threatens to be replaced by rejection," he warned.
Weekend protests would seem to underline that concern. On Sunday, news agencies estimated that 2,500 people gathered in the German-Czech border town of Sebnitz to protest against refugees. The event appeared to be connected to the group Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the Occident (PEGIDA), which made headlines last winter, prior to the refugee crisis, with its anti-Muslim marches in Dresden. Meanwhile, over 1,000 assembled to protest against a planned refugee accommodation on Saturday in nearby Chemnitz.
Merkel's problem at the moment is that she has little with which to counter the mounting criticism. "In 90 percent of all committee meetings, regardless of what's on the agenda, we are having to address refugee issues," said one Christian Democratic parliamentary group leader. "Everyone knows that we have to do more."
Furious members of parliament have been reporting to the responsible committees in parliament about the tense situation in their respective electoral districts. Andreas Scheuer, general secretary of the Bavarian CSU, related that Austrians are picking up refugees and driving them to the German border before showing them how to get to Bavaria. Another member of parliament from Straubing, near Regensburg, spoke of refugees who had disappeared on foot because they didn't want to stay in the accommodations they had been provided with.
Merkel Unable to Silence Critics
But even some of Merkel's closest allies, like Interior Minister Thomas de Maizìere or CSU group leader Gerda Hasselfeldt, are no longer entirely following Merkel's line. Hasselfeldt, the chairwoman of the Bundestag group of CSU parliamentarians, last week proposed erecting transit zones at Germany's borders, similar to those at airports. The areas would be used to immediately deport refugees who are unlikely to qualify for protection. De Maizère expressed his support for the measure one day later.
Merkel ally Volker Kauder, who leads the conservatives in parliament, quickly countered Hasselfeldt, saying it was unproductive to continually make new proposals. But with faith in the chancellor currently dropping among conservatives, silencing the CDU has become unfeasible. "We are almost at the point where German states and municipalities say they can't do it anymore," says Michael Kretschmer, deputy head of the conservative parliamentary group in the Bundestag. "We will have no other choice but to limit the influx."
Meanwhile, Thomas Strobl, another senior CDU parliamentarian, has proposed deploying the German military to help bring the situation under control. He says the soldiers could help to "relieve the situation," adding that medics could be called on to provide immunizations in the refugee hostels. And other CDU domestic policy specialists have also said that the government must examine the feasibility of closing the German border to refugees so as to comply with the Dublin procedures.
Merkel can count herself lucky that she still has the support of her coalition partner, the center-left Social Democrats (SPD). Indeed, the party has emerged as Merkel's closest ally. The SPD, for example, is strictly opposed to establishing airport-style fast-track immigration procedures on Germany's borders. "How are you supposed to implement that along the 3,000-kilometer-long German border?" SPD domestic policy expert Burkhard Lischka asks. "Where are the buildings and rooms we need for that?" He then described what he called a de Maizìere "echo chamber," where ideas like that are conceived in the Interior Ministry.
Officials in the Justice Ministry, which is led by a Social Democrat, are also skeptic of de Maizìere's plans. "Where are all the people supposed to go who are supposed to be quickly checked?" one leading official in the Ministry asked. Meanwhile, Carsten Sieling, the mayor of the city of Bremen, laments: "The last thing we need is a cacophony on the political stage in Berlin."
But pressure to act is growing. The latest refugee figures have alarmed government officials, and now scenarios are being played out at the federal and state level for the possibility of doing what had previously been overruled: Shutting Germany's borders. This would mean that the Federal Police, at least in the states of Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg, would return to their original role patrolling the borders with Austria and Switzerland. It's a step Germany would have to coordinate with neighbors France, Switzerland, Austria and possibly even the Czech Republic.
There are also few answers for how the perpetually overstrained Federal Police would be expected to handle the task. No less sensitive is the potential impact this notion of a Fortress Germany might have on the country's international reputation. If Germany were to close its borders, the refugees would be stuck on the other side, but they wouldn't be able to go back to where they came from. They would instead be taken to refugee centers in the middle of nowhere.
A Decision To 'Flood Germany'
Merkel is aware that she is losing her grip on the refugee issue. Public sentiment is shifting and the climate in the country is getting colder. But Merkel herself doesn't want to play the role of ice queen. She also has little regard for the activism that has gripped her party and wants to persevere with her pro-refugee policy -- not least because she doesn't believe the alternatives being suggested are feasible. Within the Chancellery, officials believe that closing Germany's borders is impracticable. And if that's not possible, the argument goes, then it's best to just not talk about it. The chancellor's view is that nothing can be more damaging than a political pledge that then doesn't get implemented.
Merkel believes the only way to reduce the number of refugees in Germany is through international efforts to address the problem. As such, the Chancellery is currently pursuing a deal with Turkey to close its European borders to refugees. But it's clear that Ankara will also want something in return.
Sources within the conservatives say the government in Ankara is demanding visa-free travel for its citizens, which the center-right has strictly rejected in the past. Given the current situation, though, it appears that many CDU and CSU politicians now consider this to be a small price to pay.
By Melanie Amann, Hubert Gude, Horand Knaup, Peter Müller, Ralf Neukirch, Michael Sauga, Jörg Schindler, Barbara Schmid, Holger Stark, Andreas Ulrich