Migration policy

Fearing Refugee Backlash, Conservatives Get Tough

Police munich-Kerstin Joensson-ap
Refugees have been pouring into Munich's main train station.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Chancellor Merkel is losing popularity on migration. Her conservative party fears a backlash. They think they could lose out to rightwing populists.

  • Facts


    • Popularity figures for Chancellor Angela Merkel have markedly dipped, to their lowest in two years.
    • Germany has declared Balkan states “safe,” their migrants now are ineligible for asylum.
    • National polls show populist right-wing party, the AfD, at 6 percent and rising.
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Thomas de Maizière has had a tough few weeks.

The German interior minister has had to respond quickly to the surge in refugees pouring into the country since summer. He has had to shape new laws and regulations on migration, while facing intense criticism from his Social Democratic coalition partners, as well as a number of state governments. On top of that, he has been an unrelenting cold.

The coming weeks don’t look much better for Mr. de Maizière. His major task right now is to quiet dissenting voices in his own party, making sure, above all, that they don’t grow into a rebellion against Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Opposition to her policies of openness and humanity first appeared in the Christian Social Union, the CDU’s Bavarian sister party. But discontent has spread rapidly beyond. The chancellor’s approval ratings have lately seen a distinct dip. Politbarometer, a respected poll from a major broadcaster, is reporting her lowest scores since the last election, in 2013.

For many Christian Democrats, one thing is clear: 800,000 asylum seekers in a single year may be politically feasible, but only as a once-off exception, not year on year.

Ms. Merkel opened the doors wide for beleaguered refugees stuck in Hungary. Mr. de Maizière, as the minister in charge, now has the job of closing the door again, at least enough to give breathing space to local governments and to keep Christian Democratic voters on board.

“Most people welcome the civil war refugees, but they want to see clear signals that things are under control,” said Armin Schuster, the most senior CDU member of the parliamentary home affairs committee.

Mr. de Maizière sent the first of these signals with the re-introduction of border controls. Decisions at last Thursday’s summit of federal and state governments were also partly meant as signal, to be heard loud and clear. Jens Spahn, a member of the CDU party’s governing presidium, hailed that meeting as a crucial indicator of a harder line.

“Orderly accommodation in reception centers, fewer cash payments and no more money if your migration claim is turned down,” Mr. Spahn said. “These are tough signals, but they are necessary.”

As for agreed measures, the Christian Democrats were the clear victors in the negotiations. However, Ms. Merkel did make substantial financial concessions to the state governments, a majority of which are run by the Social Democrats and the Green Party.

Speaking of the package of measures he had submitted to the meeting, Mr. de Maizière announced triumphantly that “every substantial component won political approval, with no major concessions.” The Christian Democrats, according to the CDU’s Mr. Schuster, managed to push through many measures previously blocked by the Social Democrats and the Green Party.

In fact, states governed by the Social Democrats and the Greens have gone along with many decisions they would have vehemently rejected just a few months ago. The major goal of migrant policy is now to strongly discourage all asylum applications from the Balkans, since they have almost no chance of success. Applicants from Balkan states made up almost half of the total in the first six months of this year.

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The far-right, neo-Nazi Natinal Democratic Party took to the streets last month in Dresden to protest the sharp rise in refugees entering the country. Source: imago/Paul Sander


Albania, Kosovo and Montenegro are now to be declared “safe” countries of origin, a status already given to other Balkan states. Anyone from the region who does apply for asylum will be processed rapidly in reception centers, and will have support payments in cash sharply reduced. Those already in the country will be encouraged to leave with the promise that they can legally return if they show a work contract and an adequate income.

Mr. de Maizière appeared confident that his measures would stop the surge of Balkan applications. Moreover, if it works out, state governments would have far fewer failed applicants to deport. The European Commission, among others, has recently criticized Germany’s lax deportation policies.

For many Christian Democrats, one thing is clear: 800,000 asylum seekers in a single year may be politically feasible, but only as a once-off exception, not year on year. What’s more, as early as next March the party faces three important regional elections, in the states of Baden-Württemburg, Rhineland-Palatinate and Saxony-Anhalt.

Recent polls showed a clear increase in support for the populist right-wing Alternative for Germany, or AfD. In the country as a whole, the party is polling at around 6 percent, above the crucial 5 percent hurdle for federal parliamentary representation.

The rise in support for the AfD – a party written off not long ago after a bitter split – could be dangerous for the Christian Democrats in states like Baden-Württemburg. If the populist AfD maintains its current support there, it could win seats in the regional parliament, complicating the CDU’s hopes to oust the current Green-SPD coalition with the help of the small liberal Federal Democratic Party.

But for the CDU, stopping the flow of migrants is in itself not enough.

“We have to engage much more strongly with people’s fears,” said Roderich Kiesewetter, a CDU parliamentarian in Baden-Württemburg. “We have to explain our policies better, instead of just saying the same thing as our critics.” If his party just took the trouble to explain, he added, people would respond sympathetically.

Till Hoppe is Handelsblatt’s foreign policy correspondent in Berlin. To contact the author: hoppe@handelsblatt.com

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