(FT) Chancellor feels strain as splinter group calls for tighter border controls.
Angela Merkel threw open Germany’s doors to desperate migrants this summer with a historic welcome.
But after more than a million poured in last year — and with another million expected this year — Germans are losing patience with their chancellor’s insistence on a European solution to the crisis. So are some of her fellow EU leaders.
The chorus of critics calling for a return to national border controls grows all the time: last week Austria, Germany’s closest ally in the crisis, announced plans for tough border controls, joining Sweden and Denmark.
In Berlin, a conservative splinter group in the chancellor’s ruling Christian Democratic Union party has appealed for a return to effective frontier checks. And Julia Klöckner, a leading CDU figure, has called for Ms Merkel’s refugee policy to be “expanded” with the setting up of border registration camps.
The chancellor is feeling the strain. At a stormy meeting last week with the Christian Social Union, the CDU’s Bavaria-based sister, Ms Merkel was clearly irritated. “I would be happy,” she reportedly said, “if you at least wished me luck.”
Time is running out for Ms Merkel. The next summit of EU leaders in mid-February is a key date — after which the chancellor says she will draw up “an interim balance” of her approach so far to the migrants crisis. That would give her time to change tack before three regional elections on March 13 and the onset of spring, when better weather could boost refugee numbers.
Deadlines have come and gone in this crisis. But the sense of urgency has deepened since the Cologne assaults by a New Year’s eve mob, in which immigrants were the chief suspects.
Not only has the Cologne scandal sharpened German concern about Ms Merkel’s open-doors approach, it has given sceptical EU partners a new argument against sharing Germany’s burden.
The government has responded by pledging stricter laws for immigrants convicted of crimes, including more deportations. This has permitted Ms Merkel to appear tough. But, as she knows, it will change little. Nobody can be deported without their home country’s co-operation — and few governments co-operate.
The key remains cutting inflows. Ms Merkel is sticking to her international approach: a scheme to share refugees across member states, stronger EU external borders, an agreement with Turkey and, ideally, peace in Syria.
Unfortunately, none of these initiatives have yet produced results. After more than 1m refugees arrived in Germany last year, up to 2,000 still arrive daily, despite the winter.
No wonder the CSU and CDU right-wingers are angry. Critics calling for border controls now speak for about 100 of the 311 CDU/CSU MPs. That is not enough to force a U-turn, let alone a resignation, but it creates the awkward impression that Ms Merkel is losing control of her own side.
Ms Klöckner’s intervention this weekend increases tensions. As CDU leader in Rhineland Pfalz, one of the three regions with elections, she needs to talk tough to win votes. But her critics have branded her proposals as an “anti-Merkel plan” even though the politician insists she remains loyal to the chancellor.
Ms Merkel argues that any German border crackdown would push refugees back into the continent’s most vulnerable region, the Balkans.
Better chaos in the Balkans than in Cologne, say her critics on the right. No, say the chancellor’s allies, Balkan chaos could trigger violence.
Even with 100 rebels, Ms Merkel would retain a big parliamentary majority: the social democrats, her coalition partners, grumble loudly but still oppose tougher border controls.
Outside the Bundestag, things are different. Despite its internal rows, the rightwing immigration-sceptic Alternative für Deutschland is rising in the polls, hitting 11 per cent in a recent survey for ZDF television.
The CDU/CSU retains a commanding lead on 37 per cent, down just 4 percentage points since last summer. But this may matter less than a chilling drop in confidence in refugee policy — down from 60 per cent to 46 per cent in a month.
There is a growing risk voters may turn the regional elections into an immigration referendum — with even solid CDU supporters protesting by backing the AfD.
That would be dangerous for Ms Merkel, whose power is rooted in the fact she is more popular than her party. The more she loses public support, the more her authority will crack. And as it cracks at home, it will crack in the rest of the EU.Germans-losing-patience-with-Angela-Merkel’s-migrant-policy-F