Refugee Row

A Grand Debacle

Chancellor Angela Merkel faces fierce opposition from Bavarian politician Horst Seehofer. Source: Reuters
Chancellor Angela Merkel faces fierce opposition from her coalition partners.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    As Germany gears up for elections in 2017, voters will be carefully monitoring the cracks in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition for signs leaders can’t deal with the influx of asylum seekers.

  • Facts


    • Up to 10,000 refugees continue to cross into Germany every day.
    • The ruling right-left coalition is fraying over what to do about the massive influx.
    • A government crisis summit this Sunday was inconclusive as the center-left SPD rejected their conservative partners’ plans.
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What’s the difference between a refugee transit zone and a reception center? Don’t know? Neither do most German voters.

German politicians in the ruling right-left Grand Coalition might know better, but that isn’t helping them deal with the refugee crisis.

That’s because the recent three-way spat between the center-right Christian Democratic Union, its Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union, and their center-left coalition partner, the Social Democratic Party (SPD), isn’t about securing Germany’s borders.

Instead, the coalition has reached an impasse: Politicians now lack the will to bring the country further along, and it’s happening in an acute hour of need.

So what is motivating Germany’s leaders? Certainly not the drive to reach a reasonable consensus solution to a very pressing problem.

Politicians now lack the will to bring the country further along and it’s happening in an acute hour of need.

Take the vague position paper agreed by Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU and the CSU after their marathon meeting at the weekend. Reading the text leads to a sobering conclusion: No real help is in the offing.

The paper, entitled “National Measures,” is six pages long and reads almost like a wishlist by Horst Seehofer, the head of the Bavarian-based CSU, who has been on a collision course with Ms. Merkel over the welcome she has offered to refugees from war-torn Syria.

The paper doesn’t exactly exude a spirit of compromise.

It’s particularly telling that the document devotes just four and a half lines to the causes of Germany’s current refugee influx. According to the document, the CDU-CSU group is expecting “a clear signal” from the European Union’s upcoming Africa summit about measures to combat the underlying causes of migration.

Nor does the center-left SDP seem to be seeking a consensus. It’s hard to see the party’s leader, Sigmar Gabriel, as a champion of the cause of asylum-seekers in Germany. Mr. Gabriel is known for roughly imposing views on his party in order to keep the peace with his coalition partners.

But now, his position is notably unbending. It’s an unconvincing stance.

Just last week Mr. Gabriel switched over to electoral combat mode, positioning himself for the tough battles ahead.

First he reinforced his claim to challenge Ms. Merkel to lead Germany at the next election in 2017. Then he used his veto at the weekend’s refugee summit.

And when he loudly proclaimed Monday that it wasn’t the SDP’s job to iron out the differences between CSU and CDU, many observers could only rub their eyes in disbelief.

Wasn’t it Mr. Gabriel who, only a few weeks ago, brokered an agreement to build the massive, enormously expensive electrical highway underground, just to get the CSU’s Mr. Seehofer to finally quiet down?

Mr. Seehofer’s role is also far from glorious.

Now nearing the end of his political life, the Bavarian premier is acting more stubbornly than ever. Perhaps that’s understandable given his position as head of the German state most affected by the refugee crisis, and so subject to particularly stark scrutiny by his electorate.

Mr. Seehofer's role is also far from glorious.

And to think that just a few months ago, the Grand Coalition was working fine! It worked through an astounding succession of issues that many thought would never be agreed upon.

But the key issue of the day isn’t introducing a minimum wage. It is, of course, the refugee crisis. And here the coalition fails miserably.

The refugee crisis raises fundamental questions. How far does solidarity extend to the hundreds of thousands – indeed millions – of people who are in flight throughout the world?

They flee homelands because of dire need and utter desperation. Because of unbearable political circumstances. Because of never-ending war. What can and what does our society want to do?

Anyone looking for conclusive answers to these questions will have to discuss social policy, and then probably wait a few months for answers. At the moment, however, it’s not a matter of clarifying questions of principle, but instead of engaging in a pragmatic search for quick solutions to the major challenges of here and now.

A vague hope remains. In Germany’s states – regardless of who governs them – there is a pressing emergency. State prime ministers are confronted daily with a frightful reality in their overwhelmed cities and towns.

Hopefully, by the next summit this Thursday, the states will have put so much pressure on the federal government that it’s enough for a better-than-nothing compromise.

But there’s a real danger this won’t be achieved. Germany’s voters will be watching closely.


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