Angela Merkel refused to bow to pressure to shut borders even as the German leader struggles to fix a rift in her governing coalition over how to tackle the country’s biggest influx of migrants since World War II.
Facing unrest from within her Christian Democratic Union, the chancellor fielded questions from party members at an event Monday in the western city of Darmstadt.
“I’m working, just as you expect, to ensure that the number of refugees goes down,” Merkel told CDU members. “But to all those who say we should shut the German border to Austria, I don’t think that will solve the problem.”
As Germany braces for as many as a million people seeking shelter from war and poverty this year, Merkel said the country can’t afford to turn inward, but has to instead embrace geopolitical challenges “much more actively.” The refugee crisis shows that Germany can’t resist the globalizing forces around it.
“We’re experiencing something we’ve never experienced before, that conflicts that appear to be far away suddenly are here on our doorstep,” Merkel said.
With public concern mounting and party support on the slide, the political veteran is navigating yet another stormy week as lawmakers return to Berlin for a parliamentary session that will again be dominated by the crisis. A Tuesday caucus meeting will provide a baromoter of anti-Merkel sentiment even if she’s in no immediate political danger.
After meeting for some 10 hours over the weekend with Bavarian Prime Minister Horst Seehofer, her biggest internal critic, Merkel offered qualified support for so-called transit zones to weed out economic migrants. Sending back migrants from safe-origin countries wouldn’t end the turmoil because “there are so many” making their way to Germany, she said.
With Bavaria the main gateway to Germany for those pouring over the border from Austria, Seehofer has said the state government would take unspecified action if Merkel didn’t meet his demands. In the last two months, 344,000 refugees entered Bavaria, according to the state’s interior ministry.
“The number of refugees has to be urgently limited or reduced,” Seehofer said.
Illustrating the knot the chancellor must untie, Sigmar Gabriel, the head of the Social Democratic junior coalition partner, rejects the transit zones, saying they were unworkable and would result in interment camps.
Even with the coalition tone on refugees hardening, Merkel held to her core principles that there can be neither caps on asylum seekers nor the closing of the German border to migrants. A record 218,394 refugees fled across the Mediterranean Sea in October, more than in all of last year, the United Nations refugee agency said.
Her open-door refugee policy comes at a price. Backing for her CDU-led bloc slipped two percentage points to 36 percent last week, down from an August peak of 43 percent, according to a weekly poll carried out by Forsa.
With the German authorities also warning of mounting attacks on asylum seekers and a drift to extremism, the chancellor faces creeping isolation as a public initially lining up to welcome refugees begins to fret over the ever-mounting number of newcomers.
While Merkel will be able to parry threats from the CSU and within her own party, “what she cannot lose is public support,” said Andrea Roemmele, a political scientist at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin.