For one day, it seemed harmony had returned to Germany’s fractious ruling coalition.
But a row over the status of Syrian asylum seekers has seen discord return and caused deep confusion over the exact government policy.
Last Thursday’s summit had seen the leaders of the three parties, Chancellor Angela Merkel of the Christian Democrats, Horst Seehofer, head of her Bavarian allies the Christian Social Union, and Sigmar Gabriel, the Social Democrats’ leader, reach an agreement on the fast-tracking of some asylum applications in so-called reception centers.
Yet, by Friday another row flared up and it continued to fester through the weekend and into Monday.
On Friday, Germany’s interior minister, Thomas de Mazière, announced that Syrians would from now only be given so-called “subsidiary protection,” rather than refugee status. That would prevent them being able to bring over family members and limit their stay in Germany initially to one year.
The SPD immediately voiced outrage at the unilateral decision, pointing out that the new policy had not been discussed either at Thursday’s leaders’ summit nor at a meeting later that day with the premiers of the 16 German states.
“Neither Mr. de Mazière nor anyone else spoke about this during the talks,” Hannelor Kraft, the SPD premier of North Rhine-Westphalia complained.
Mr. de Mazière, a Merkel loyalist whose handling of the refugee crisis has been criticized as ineffective, was acting alone it seemed.
Shortly after, government spokesman Steffen Seibert said the protection status of all Syrians would remain the same.
Last month Mr. de Mazière was embarrassed when responsibility for the refugee issue was handed to Peter Altmaier, Ms. Merkel’s chief of staff, who now coordinates the government’s response.
Yet Mr. Altmaier was not consulted before Mr. de Mazière made the announcement on Friday and only learned of the planned change in procedures from Mr. Gabriel.
On Sunday Mr. Altmaier tried to downplay talk of another major rift in the coalition saying: “After a short period of irritation, we together – the CDU, CSU and SPD – overcame this irritation.”
He said that for now the situation would remain the same: that Syrians fleeing the civil war would be accorded refugee status, according to United Nations convention on refugees – and that included the right to have family members join them.
However, many voices in the CDU and CSU are coming out to support the interior minister’s initial position.
“We of course have to limit family reunions, as our capacity to take people in is not unlimited.”
“Thomas de Maizière is right,” Mr. Seehofer, the CSU leader, told the Süddeutsche Zeitung in comments published on Monday. “We have to once again act in accordance with the law and carefully examine the refugee status of every Syrian.”
Andreas Scheuer, the general secretary of the CSU, said that Germany needed this “suspension, so as not to create even more incentives for refugees to come to Germany.”
He told the Passauer Neue Presse on Monday that anyone coming from a “safe” refugee camp in another country should only be allowed to stay for a short while and not be allowed to send for family members.
On Sunday evening, Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, a CDU heavy hitter, also came to the defense of his cabinet colleague.
Appearing on a current affairs show on public broadcaster ARD, he said that limiting family repatriation was in accordance with international and European law. “We of course have to limit family reunions, as our capacity to take people in is not unlimited,” he said. “I think it is a necessary decision and I am in favor of us agreeing upon it very swiftly in the coalition.”
On the same program, the SPD leader, Sigmar Gabriel, who is also economics minister and vice chancellor, rejected such a move, since it had not been discussed within the government.
“No one can expect the SPD to publicaly say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to any old suggestion on a 24-hour basis,” he said.
Justice Minister Heiko Maas, another senior SPD figure, also expressed frustration with Mr. de Maizière’s surprise statement and the lack of consultation. “We should be implementing what we already agreed to, before making the next suggestions,” he told public broadcaster ZDF.
The SPD deputy leader, Thorsten Schäfer-Gümbel, meanwhile insisted that his party would not agree to a change in the status of Syrian refugees: “There will be no further limitation of family repatriation beyond what has been agreed,” he told ZDF on Monday morning.
Malu Dreyer, the SPD premier of Rhineland-Palatinate, told the ARD channel: “It can be in no one’s interest if only the fathers, the men, come to our country, while the mothers and children are left alone in misery or else try to come here alone, taking on all the risk.”
The spat has also shown the growing divide between the coalition parties on how to deal with the refugee crisis.
Germany expects up to 1 million people to apply for asylum this year. Last week the government announced that 758,000 people had arrived between January and October, with 243,000 Syrians accounting for about one-third of them. In October alone 181,000 people arrived, pushing the country’s local and regional authorities to their limits as they struggle to provide adequate shelter as well as register the new arrivals.
Chancellor Merkel has come in for some hefty criticism, even within her own party and their Bavarian allies, for her open door policy on refugees.
A decision by the Federal Office for Refugees and Migration in August to allow all Syrians to stay in the country and apply for asylum, even if they first entered the European Union via another member state, overturned existing E.U. rules.
Many argue that Ms. Merkel’s subsequent stance supporting that decision has encouraged the hundreds of thousands of people to make the arduous and often perilous journey across the Aegean Sea from Turkey to Greece, and then through the Balkans.
However, Ms. Merkel is also likely to have calculated that the refugees, many fleeing the ongoing brutal civil war in Syria and the hopeless conditions in the refugee camps in neighboring countries, were coming anyway. She has since insisted that Germany will set no upper limit on the amount of refugees it takes in.
Yet, at the same time her government wants to dissuade those with little chance of being granted asylum from coming to the country and clogging up the strained system.
Last week’s summit of leaders was designed to deal with the many thousands applying for asylum from countries deemed safe, such as Albania, Macedonia and Serbia. Between January and October, for example, over 67,000 Albanians applied for asylum, the biggest group after Syrians.
The SPD had rejected a suggestion from the CSU for “transit zones” on the borders that would detain people from these countries of safe origin, in order to quickly reject their applications. Instead the government agreed to a number of reception centers, which would fast-track applications and deportations but would not involve keeping asylum seekers in extra-territorial detention centers.
Mr. Gabriel had walked out of a leaders’ summit on November 1, after which Ms. Merkel and Ms. Seehofer issued a joint position paper agreeing to transit zones. However, negotiators from all three parties subsequently hammered out a compromise.
The refugee issue has caused deep unease within Ms. Merkel’s CDU and particularly the CSU, which governs Bavaria, where many of the refugees are arriving from Austria.
The conservatives have seen their support slide from 43 percent in August to 36 percent, a sign that many of their supporters do not back Germany’s relatively welcoming stance toward refugees.
While the SPD has failed to profit from their coalition partners’ woes, the conservative Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) has seen a surge in support.
The party was originally formed by euro-skeptics who opposed the Greek bailouts, but had been caught up in internal strife for months and seen its support wane.
However, the anti-immigrant, socially conservative wing of the party subsequently won a power struggle and since then new leader Frauke Petry has successfully harnessed the refugee issue. The party now enjoys 8 percent nationally, and is even stronger in eastern Germany.
The AfD has already entered three state parliaments and is now looking likely to enter the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt in state elections next March. There are also elections that month in the western states of Baden Württemberg and Rhineland Palatinate and if the refugee issue continues to dominate the headlines, the AfD are likely to enter those state parliaments as well.
The AfD took its anti-immigrant message to the heart of the country on Saturday, staging a march in central Berlin.
Up to 5,000 people took to the streets, many carrying German flags and placards attacking the ruling coalition and calling for Chancellor Merkel’s resignation, as well as some bearing Islamophobic slogans.
Up to 1,100 police officers were deployed to separate the marchers from around 800 counter-demonstrators.
The issue is likely to dominate German and European politics for some time.
Despite the onset of winter and worsening conditions, there is no sign of any let up in the numbers trying to make their way to Germany.
This weekend, for example, another 5,000 people made their way in small rubber dinghies across the narrow but dangerous stretch of the Mediterranean to the island of Lesbos. For most it will be just the first stop on their journey north.
On Sunday, Ms. Merkel’s refugee crisis management was criticized at the E.U. level.
European Council President Donald Tusk said that German needs to be tougher and do more to help secure Europe’s external borders.
“I understand why due to historical reasons, Germany may have difficulty setting up a strict regime on its borders,” the former Polish prime minister told Die Welt am Sonntag newspaper. “But for Germany, European leadership responsibility also means controlling Europe’s external borders if necessary energetically in a pan-European unit.”
Siobhán Dowling covers European and German politics for Handelsblatt Global Edition. To contact her: email@example.com