It has been a fraught week for Germany’s ruling right-left coalition, with deep divisions between Chancellor Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrats and the center-left Social Democrats emerging over how to handle the refugee crisis.
On Thursday, however, the parties finally made their peace and reached an agreement. The deal aims at speeding up the asylum applications process and repatriations to deal with the huge number of new arrivals.
Germany expects up to 1 million asylum applications this year and the interior minister announced on Thursday that 758,000 people had entered the country between January and October.
The coalition summit on Thursday between Ms. Merkel, Horst Seehofer, head of Bavaria’s Christian Social Union, and SPD leader Sigmar Gabriel ended with an agreement to create three to five “admission centers” that would process those asylum applications deemed to have little chance of success.
“We’ve ended this phase of the discussion and a huge amount of work now lies ahead of us,” the chancellor told reporters in Berlin after the meeting. “We’re proceeding in the spirit that we can do this and that we want to do this.”
The summit was the second in a week between the three party leaders. Sunday’s meeting had been acrimonious, with Mr. Gabriel walking out after two hours. The two conservative leaders then agreed to a proposal for so-called “transit zones,” which the SPD rejected.
The center-left party did not want to see anything that looked like detention camps in Germany.
The compromise on Thursday paved the way for asylum-processing centers, two of which would be set up in Bavaria. Asylum applications would be fast-tracked, taking only a week instead of months. Any appeals will take just two weeks.
“We’ve ended this phase of the discussion and a huge amount of work now lies ahead of us. We’re proceeding in the spirit that we can do this and that we want to do this.”
The centers would deal with applicants from countries that are deemed safe, particularly Balkan states such as Albania, Macedonia and Serbia. It would also apply to people who had already applied for asylum or who did not have valid identity papers.
The plans also include special ID cards for refugees and asylum seekers, which would give them access to benefits. And they will not be allowed to leave the city or district in which they are registered. A special database would allow the different state bodies to have an overview of the refugee situation throughout the country.
For the Christian Democrats and their Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, these measures are designed to dissuade people from coming to Germany. The CSU in particular wants to show that Germany is also prepared to deport people as well as welcome them.
Mr. Seehofer, one of Ms. Merkel’s biggest critics on the refugee issue, had also called for an upper limit on the amount of people allowed to enter the country, but the chancellor and the SPD leader have rejected such a move.
The compromise was reached ahead of the summit at a cross-party working group that included Ms. Merkel’s chief of staff Peter Altmaier, interior minister Thomas de Maizière, both members of the CDU, and justice minister, Heiko Maas, and Hamburg mayor Olaf Scholz, both SPD members.
The SPD sought to present the deal as a victory, with the party headquarters tweeting: “No border processing, no detention camps, no fences.”
Mr. Gabriel spoke of a “good path towards an orderly process.” He was happy that extra-territorial “transit zones” and the detention of asylum seekers were off the table, he said.
After the summit, Ms. Merkel met with the premiers of Germany’s 16 states to discuss the crisis. The states discussed the need for more sharing of information and speeding up the registration process.
That is something that is urgently needed. The interior ministry said on Thursday that while it estimated that 181,000 people had arrived in October there had only been 55,000 asylum applications submitted that month.
Furthermore, there seems to be little prospect of a let up in the volume of new arrivals, despite the fact that the weather is getting worse with the approach of winter. Anywhere from 6,000 to more than 10,000 currently arrive daily in Germany, as thousands of people continue to make their way through the Balkans trying to reach Western Europe.
The United Nations refugee agency, the UNHCR, expects around 5,000 people per day over the next few months to cross through Turkey into Europe. That would mean that approximately 600,000 people would seek asylum between November and February.
The UNHCR is asking for an additional $96 million (€88 million) to help improve accommodation along the Balkan route. The organization says that the money is needed to avoid “humanitarian tragedies and the loss of life.”
The European Commission expects that the number of refugees will not decrease in coming years. By 2017, it expects that a further 3 million refugees will arrive in Europe.
On Thursday, the E.U. executive sought to put a positive gloss on this situation. The flow of migrants will boost the bloc’s economic growth by 0.2 to 0.3 percent by 2020, according to the new economic forecast from the European Commission.
While Germany, Austria and Sweden are taking in most of the refugees, the European Commission wants other E.U. countries to do more. Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has said that in exchange for helping with the refugee crisis, Brussels could loosen the European Stability Pact’s strict rules on public debt and deficits. Whoever “shows more responsibility,” Mr. Juncker said, “might expect a more flexible interpretation.”
That might allow some countries to side-step the 3 percent of GDP deficit rule if they can prove that some of that additional spending was to deal with refugees. Italy and Austria would be the first countries to benefit from the new conditions. The group of euro-zone finance ministers will approve such requests in the near future, a senior E.U. diplomat told Handelsblatt.
The latest figures show that many countries in the euro zone are already flaunting the existing rules, with the average public debt amounting to 94 percent, far above the 60 percent stipulated by the commission.
The E.U. Commission sees the integration of refugees as a growth-promoting “structural reform” and would therefore also allow for long-term exemptions from the Stability Pact, senior E.U. sources told Handelsblatt.
The refugee crisis is causing “enormous costs” in the short term Mr. Juncker has admitted, and there is not enough money in the E.U. budget to deal with it.
Ideas such as a Europe-wide tax or raising VAT on gasoline are off the table because Germany has rejected them.
German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble said Berlin is not interested in departing from its previous stance with regard to adhering to strict budget rules. “I am in favor of strengthening the Stability Pact. Furthermore, what applies is what has been agreed upon.”
Meanwhile, the European Commission is trying to get France to do more to share the burden on refugees. Mr. Juncker has shared some “very clear words” with French President Francois Hollande about the country’s response to the refugee crisis, said an E.U. official.
The feeling in Brussels is that the French government might have forgotten about the value of their much beloved “fraternity.”
However, Mr. Juncker’s admonition has had no real effect. Syrians fleeing the civil war have so far avoided France and the government in Paris clearly wants it to stay that way.
By 2017, the European Commission expects that a further 3 million refugees will arrive in Europe.
Furthermore the commission has waited in vain for a French contribution to the Syria-fund to help refugees in Jordan and Lebanon.
The E.U. leaders committed to deposit a total of €500 million in the fund. So far it has received only €47.3 million, of which €20 million came from Germany. Many countries have paid nothing, including France, Poland, Spain, United Kingdom and Belgium.
Coping with the refugee crisis is expensive across the board. Turkey will only slow down the flow of migrants into Europe if the E.U. can do something for the refugees in the Turkish camps. But this help would probably cost around €3 billion, according to sources in Brussels.
The initial reception centers at the European Union’s external borders, the so-called hotspots, will also be expensive. For 50,000 spots in Greece, the Commission calculates a cost of at least €1 billion. The expansion of the E.U. border protection agency Frontex is also going to prove costly.
Till Hoppe is a politics correspondent in Berlin, Ruth Berschens is the paper’s Brussels bureau chief, Thomas Sigmund is the Berlin bureau chief. Sandra Louven contributed to this report. To contact the authors: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com.