German Interior Minister on Refugee Crisis 'We Want Clarity on the Refugee Crisis by Spring'

In an interview, German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière, 62, warns that the government in Berlin only has a few weeks left to solve the refugee problem. He fears that Europe's open-border policies may soon end if a solution isn't found.
Refugees in Berlin: "Everyone learns in a crisis," says Germany's interior minister of government failures in the crisis.

Refugees in Berlin: "Everyone learns in a crisis," says Germany's interior minister of government failures in the crisis.

Foto: Michael Kappeler/ dpa

SPIEGEL: Interior Minister de Maizière, the state of Bavaria has written to Chancellor Merkel demanding that she change her refugee policies, there is protest among German conservatives and now the deputy chair of her own Christian Democratic Union (CDU) has come up with her own plan to stymie the flow of refugees to Germany. Is it time to concede that the chancellor's Plan A has failed?

De Maizière: No. Coping with the refugee crisis is complex -- it has an international aspect, a European and a national one. We are addressing all three fields methodically and step by step. It is an illusion to believe that there is a Plan A, B, or C to solve the refugee crisis.

SPIEGEL: Isn't the real illusion the idea that Europe is going to help bail Germany out of the refugee crisis? Austria has announced a cap on the number of refugees it is willing to take, Denmark has tightened its asylum laws and Sweden is no longer allowing refugees without papers into the country.

De Maizière: On Monday, I sat together with my European counterparts in Amsterdam and the degree of responsibility they felt was indeed very divergent. However, it is a mistake if some partners believe they can avoid the problem. Should the Schengen system of open borders face additional pressure or its long-term viability continue to be questioned, they will realize that the refugee crisis than just a German issue, because all in Europe would be hurt.

SPIEGEL: In mid-December, the CDU agreed at its party convention that the number of refugees has to be significantly reduced. How much time do you have left?

De Maizière: We want clarity by spring. Compared to September and October, when on some days as many as 10,000 people entered Germany, the number has decreased significantly. In January, an average of 2,000 people came per day, which, projected over a year would still be very many -- too many. So no matter what, we need to prevent the influx from massively increasing again in the spring. Time is running out.

SPIEGEL: Is the drop in the number of refugees in recent weeks solely attributable to bad weather?

De Maizière: To a large degree, probably yes. Although there have been sporadic efforts by Turkey to stop illegal migration across the Aegean Sea, this is still not happening on the scale that is necessary.

SPIEGEL: What would happen if Turkey and Europe were to let the German government down? Would Germany then close its borders to refugees?

De Maizière: I don't take part in speculation over various scenarios. Instead, I work to ensure that our approach will be successful.

SPIEGEL: At the moment there is discussion over stopping refugees at the border between Slovenia and Croatia.

De Maizière: This is an idea that is being discussed especially by the southeastern European countries themselves. But you also have to consider the fact this would effectively shut Greece out of the Schengen area and could lead to a backup (of refugees), either in Greece, in Macedonia, where we already observed this effect this week, or elsewhere in the Balkans. You cannot simply ignore that.

SPIEGEL: What do you mean by that?

De Maizière: That we have to continue to work on other solutions in parallel. It is a matter of supporting countries, like Lebanon and Jordan, where large refugee camps are located. It is a matter of establishing a link between migration and development aid so that we can encourage the countries of North Africa, especially, to take back illegal migrants again. And we have to intensify our talks with Turkey.

SPIEGEL: If the situation is truly to be brought under control by March, then Turkey has to close its beaches to refugees and traffickers. Is it even logistically possible for the Turks to control a section of coast that is several hundred kilometers long?

De Maizière: It could at least be done much better than it is right now.

SPIEGEL: Turkey is already accommodating more than 2 million refugees. Viewed from that perspective, the government in Ankara is likely pleased when refugees leave the country and head for Europe.

De Maizière: Turkey and Europe have common interests. Europe is prepared to help with providing shelter for refugees in Turkey. Turkey is demanding relaxed visa requirements from the EU. There is also a connection between the issue of refugees and the battle against the so-called Islamic State. The perpetrators in Istanbul who killed 10 Germans at the beginning of January were registered as refugees according to Turkish investigators. It will surely not contribute to the stabilization of Turkey domestically if it remains a transit country for refugees in the long term.

SPIEGEL: At the moment, Turkey is constructing a massive border fortification along the Turkish-Syrian border. Is it not hypocritical for Germany to say it wants to help refugees on the one hand, but then, on the other, places pressure on Turkey, with the outcome being that an escape route from the Syrian civil war is blocked?

De Maizière: The only answer to that is that we need to do everything in our power to put an end to the horrendous conditions in Syria. Furthermore, there is nothing fundamentally wrong with border control. We have a fence on the land border between Turkey and Greece. We have a fence between Turkey and Bulgaria. We have a fence between Morocco and the Spanish exclave Melilla. We rightly expect every country in the Schengen zone to protect its external border. And I am sympathetic to the fact that Turkey is doing everything it can to prevent the civil war in Syria from spilling over into its own country.

SPIEGEL: But the consequence is that Syrians are no longer able to flee from Assad's barrel bombs.

De Maizière: That is why it is so important to combat the roots of the flight. I am a politician, but I am also a Christian and, as such, I worry about the situation people in the region are in -- and I am convinced that we in Germany and the international community need and can do considerably more on this issue. However, it is also true that it is impossible for Germany to take in all the refugees from the world's crisis regions. And this especially applies to those people not from Syria who are coming here for a better life or to look for a job in Germany.

SPIEGEL: In retrospect, was it a mistake that Chancellor Merkel didn't explicitly state at the start of the refugee crisis that Germany does not have unlimited capacity for taking in people?

De Maizière: We have done that several times. It was just that the people from the crisis areas were already on their way -- and they didn't just leave following the chancellor's decision at the beginning of September to take in refugees who had been stranded in Hungary.

SPIEGEL: The German government's central message was, "We can handle this" and "there is no upper limit for asylum." Do you honestly believe that this wasn't a trigger that led people to come to Germany?

De Maizière: I do not want to be a part of any debates about the causes of the flight or enticement effects . Surely there were several.

SPIEGEL: Was the idea of a Willkommenskultur, or welcoming culture, for the refugees a mistake?

De Maizière: Asolutely not. We should be proud when refugees say that the German border official was the first polite police officer they had ever encountered in their life. Of course you could say that even that could be an enticement to come. It has to be self-evident that we seek to provide people with decent accommodations. The personal experiences that are shared using smartphones play a considerable role in the fact that so many people want to come to us.

SPIEGEL: So you're saying that the German government did everything right?

De Maizière: Please. Who does everything right? Everyone learns in a crisis. We introduced the nuclear energy phase-out (in Germany) after the accident at Fukushima. During the financial crisis, we began the search quite late for a solution for the entire system rather than rescuing individual banks. And it was relatively late in the euro crisis that we pushed through stringent conditions. All that was correct. In the refugee crisis, we have achieved a whole lot during only five months that would not have been possible without the crisis.

German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière: "We would be doing ourselves all a favor if we were to refocus on finding a solution to the challenges instead of stirring up political passions."

German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière: "We would be doing ourselves all a favor if we were to refocus on finding a solution to the challenges instead of stirring up political passions."

Foto: Goetz Schleser/DER SPIEGEL

SPIEGEL: What have we learned from the refugee crisis?

De Maizière: We have agreed on (revisions to our asylum laws through) the Asylum I and Asylum II legislative bills, we have declared a number of countries to be safe countries of origin and we have simplified regulations. Until the middle of last year, when we spoke about migration, it had been almost exclusively about migration from the Balkan states. As a result of our measures, that issue has been largely resolved today. And all of that happened within just a few months. I think we have demonstrated that were are very capable of learning.

SPIEGEL: The Asylum II bill, which limits the right of asylum-seekers to bring family members who have been left behind to Germany and also makes deportations easier for people whose asylum applications are rejected, was delayed for a long time because the conservatives could not reach an agreement with their government coalition partner, the center-left Social Democrats. Don't tactical games like this play right into the hands of the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany party?

De Maizière: Things are not that simple, though I would have liked to have seen a quicker agreement. In any case, it was not due to a lack of reasonable proposals from my side.

SPIEGEL: There are numerous people in the police and security agencies who are urging you to adopt a firmer stance. On the other side, you have Chancellor Merkel, who has struck a markedly different tone. Do get the feeling sometimes that you're trapped in the middle?

De Maizière: Each government minister views the circumstances of each issue differently. An interior minister has a different view of visa liberalization than does a foreign minister. An education minister has a different take on the supply of teachers than a finance minister. It is my job as interior minister to speak out early and clearly on the issue of security, order and the integration of refugees.

SPIEGEL: In the past, government ministers have stepped down because they no longer felt they could support their government's policies. Is there a line in the sand for you in terms of Merkel's refugee policies?

De Maizière: The German chancellor and I have known each other since the fall of 1989, 26 years. We have worked together very closely in a number of different capacities. That is more than the normal relationship a German chancellor has with a cabinet member. Please, you do not need to be worried about that.

SPIEGEL: Given that it directs attention at the problems, is the mass criticism by Horst Seehofer , the head of Merkel's Bavarian sister party, against her policies actually helpful in a way?

De Maizière: I can understand it when Horst Seehofer points out the concerns. More recently, however, I would have preferred more confidential talks between partners.

SPIEGEL: You are referring to the letter the Bavarian state government sent in which it threatened to sue the federal government if it does not implement an upper limit on the number of refugees entering the country and move to secure Germany's borders.

De Maizière: Too many letters are being sent at the moment between people who see each other frequently in person. It would be better if people discussed things internally and solved problems together. I also believe there is only a limited chance that such a lawsuit would be successful. Of course we are complying with the rules and laws. In addition, if the Federal Constitutional Court were to agree to take on the case, it is certain that it would not issue a ruling quickly. That's another reason why I do not consider Bavaria's action to be a constructive approach.

SPIEGEL: Are we currently experiencing the most serious crisis yet in Angela Merkel's time as chancellor?

De Maizière: That is something for the historians to determine at some point. Clearly it is a major challenge. But not just for the chancellor. For everyone.

SPIEGEL: Let's put the question another way: Is the crisis so major that it could cause Merkel to fall?

De Maizière: We would be doing ourselves all a favor if we were to refocus on finding a solution to the challenges instead of stirring up political passions.

SPIEGEL: Has the crisis already changed Germany?

De Maizière: Yes. At least there is a change at the moment. And it was surely intensified by (the events ) of New Year's Eve in Cologne. In many places, the optimistic attitude "We Germans are able to solve every problem" has been supplanted by the difficult question: "Are we still capable of solving this?"

SPIEGEL: And this only happened because we are once again facing a wave of refugees?

De Maizière: I think there are also other causes. The possible irregularities in the awarding of the World Cup, the Volkswagen scandal, the problems encountered in the construction of the new Berlin airport, Hamburg's failed bid for the Olympics, the high number of refugees, the fear that terrorism is approaching, still persistent worries about the euro -- all those things have put a dent in the confidence of many Germans. This worries me because it has a tendency to make problems bigger and not smaller.

SPIEGEL: By contrast, it is Germany's self-confidence that has bothered many of our neighbors.

De Maizière: There is a sort of fatigue in our country when it comes to change, more so in the eastern states than in the western ones. In earlier times, globalization always appeared at first glance to be happening elsewhere, and we were the winners. Now the darker side of globalization has also arrived.

SPIEGEL: Is that really true? Germany is still faring very well compared to other countries.

De Maizière: That is true. For generations parents have been telling their children: We work hard so that things will be better for you than they are for us. People can sense that this sentence is no longer as valid. If we work hard, the best case scenario is that our children and grandchildren will have things as good as we have them -- and things really are quite good for us, especially if you look at our history. This causes many people to conclude: Let's pull the blanket over our heads and wait for the storm to pass so that nothing will change and things stay good. I think that's wrong and illusory. We have to address the challenges of a changed world. But with a lot of people, I think this fundamental sense of resignation explains a lot.

SPIEGEL: Minister de Maizière, we thank you for this interview.

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