Refugee crisis opens new rifts in Merkel government

Angela Merkel.  PHOTO: Wikipedia

Angela Merkel. PHOTO: Wikipedia

The emotional debate over Europe’s biggest refugee crisis since World War II is tearing at German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s left-right coalition government, exposing deep rifts and even open dissent.

Barely 24 hours after Merkel’s three-party coalition had settled weeks of infighting and agreed on a new refugee policy, a senior minister forged ahead with a different plan, sparking confusion, anger and distrust.

Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere said Friday that Syrian asylum seekers would be given shorter residence permits and denied the right to be reunited with their families in a bid to limit the influx which is expected to reach one million this year.

The idea was quickly shot down by the chancellery, which said it had no advance knowledge of it, and sparked outrage from Merkel’s centre-left coalition allies the Social Democrats (SPD).

Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel of the SPD , who hopes to take over Merkel’s job after 2017 elections, fumed that it looked like the government’s “left hand no longer knows what the right hand is doing”.

While observers in Berlin wondered whether de Maiziere had been quietly tasked with playing the “bad cop” who floats controversial ideas, or whether he simply struck out alone, the perception of chaos grew.

Worse for Merkel, powerful Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble and many conservative lawmakers have voiced sympathy for the idea of barring mostly-male Syrian refugees from calling their wives and children to Germany.

“We need to limit family reunifications,” said Schaeuble, Merkel’s hardline lieutenant in the eurozone crisis. “Because our capacity to accommodate refugees is not unlimited.”

European lawmaker Ska Keller of the opposition Greens party, meanwhile, labelled de Maiziere’s plan “a catastrophic idea, because the people who are dying in the Mediterranean… die because they have no legal and secure way to immigrate”.

– Germany deeply polarised –
Merkel, usually pragmatic and unemotional, has gone out on a limb as she approaches a decade in power, urging her wealthy country to open its doors to desperate refugees fleeing war and repression.

The pastor’s daughter has argued that Europe’s biggest export power and major beneficiary of globalisation cannot hide from its consequences, insisting that setting an upper limit on arrivals is impossible.

So far this year, over 240,000 Syrians have entered the country, with more than 88,000 arriving in October alone.

The influx has deeply polarised Germany, which has seen a huge volunteer effort under the banner “refugees welcome” but also a xenophobic backlash and a spike in attacks against foreigners.

The right-wing populist Alternative for Germany party has risen to a year-high of nine percent in the latest poll, managing to draw 5,000 protesters onto the streets of Berlin last Saturday.

On Monday night, the Islamophobic PEGIDA movement readied to again rally in the eastern city of Dresden, defying calls to stay home on the anniversary of the 1938 anti-Jewish pogrom known as “Kristallnacht”.

Tensions have also played out in the “grand coalition” of Merkel’s CDU, its Bavarian sister party the CSU and Gabriel’s SPD.

Leading the charge against Merkel has been CSU chief Horst Seehofer, the premier of southern Bavaria state, now the main gateway for thousands of people crossing daily from Austria.

As the newcomers have been housed in overcrowded hostels, sports halls, army barracks and tent cities nationwide, the trio last Thursday took steps quickly send back “economic migrants” to relieve the pressure.

In the rare truce, Merkel, Gabriel and Seehofer stood shoulder-to-shoulder and presented a package of measures, including a common ID system and database for asylum seekers.

But the sense of common purpose quickly vanished as the bickering resumed, despite Merkel’s spokesman Steffen Seibert insisting Monday there had been no change to the “status quo” in protecting Syrian refugees.

Tilman Mayer of Bonn University said “the refugee crisis has indeed caused dissent” within Merkel’s government, pointing out that “right now, the chancellor has more areas of agreement with the Social Democrats than with the conservative wing of her own party”.

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