The German chancellor is coming increasingly under attack from her own conservative political allies as more and more join the call for her to reverse course and cap the number of refugees entering the country.
On Friday, Horst Seehofer, the Bavarian state premier and leader of the Christian Social Union party, subjected Ms. Merkel to a humiliating public lecture over her open-door refugee policy at a party convention in Munich. A day later, Rainer Haseloff, the premier of the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt and member of her own Christian Democratic Union party, echoed the call to cap the refugees.
“We have to … get on top of migration and regain control,” Mr. Haseloff told Handelsblatt, speaking out for “a formal cap that takes our capacity into account.”
He set a limit for Saxony-Anhalt at 12,000 refugees per year and wants other state premiers to follow his example and set concrete limits, a challenge to Ms. Merkel’s authority as the head of Germany’s federal government.
“We then have to actively communicate (this total) number to migrants’ home countries,” the state premier said, emphasizing the need to create a greater awareness of Germany’s limits.
Mr. Haseloff was the first in Ms. Merkel’s party to call for capping refugees. German conservatives are coming under increasing pressure from voters in their districts, who fear the foreign influx and in part resent that Syrian and other refugees are filling up indoor arenas, schools and other public buildings, usually used for regular events.
The attempt to pressure Ms. Merkel is serious but in part being conducted for domestic consumption. While the refugee crisis has raised the hopes of some conservatives that the 10-year reign of Ms. Merkel, which has been too liberal for their liking, could be drawing to a close, there is no evidence that her own party will actively move to unseat her.
Her partisan allies are worried that Ms. Merkel’s policies could weaken their party’s grip on power by causing many voters to flee to the Alternative for Germany, a party that sprung up over the last two years based mostly on its anti-immigrant rhetoric. In recent polls, the AfD, as it’s known by its German acronym, is measuring at about 10 percent of the electorate.
A real test of Ms. Merkel’s standing may come on March 13 when three states hold state elections. In one, Saxony-Anhalt, the AfD could clear the 5-percent threshold needed to enter the state assembly. The AfD already has some members in two former eastern German state parliaments, but is no where close to wielding power anywhere — yet.
“That’s why we’re not trying to embellish the way things are, but taking people’s fears seriously,” Mr. Haseloff said.
“We’re not trying to embellish the way things are but taking people’s fears seriously.”
The western states of Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate will also vote on March 13. The state elections could determine whether Ms. Merkel runs for a fourth term in 2017 or bows out that year after what would be a 12-year run as chancellor.
Mr. Seehofer was roundly criticised for the public dressing-down he gave Ms. Merkel last weekend and pollsters said his behavior harmed him more than Ms. Merkel. But one thing is clear: Although his party and the chancellor’s are allies, on refugee policy they do not see eye to eye.
An estimated 7,000 refugees have been entering Germany each day in recent weeks, according to police. Germany originally forecasted 800,000 new asylum claims for this year but many officials say 1 million are already in the country, although exact numbers are not available.
Ms. Merkel has so far refused to cap the refugee flow, citing the humanitarian crisis and noting that the right to asylum is enshrined in the German constitution.
A deputy interior minister, Günter Krings, said Germany must limit immigration through a European quota system for distributing refugees across the 28-nation bloc.
“The external borders must be firmly protected,” he said. “Then people can be let in — through quotas.”
The CDU will hold its annual party convention on December 14 and 15 and while Mrs. Merkel’s position as leader looks assured despite criticism of her refugee policy, the gathering will likely see ferocious debate about the influx of as many as 1 million refugees this year.
Delegates may file motions for the upper limits that the CDU is calling for. The party leadership wants to preempt such calls by drafting a motion based on a quota system — a principle that could meet with broad support at the convention, leaders hope.
Many members of Ms. Merkel’s coalition of conservatives and center-left Social Democrats can agree on the concept of quotas. Ms. Merkel and her interior minister, Thomas de Maizière, have long been calling for quotas to control and limit immigration.
But they have pointed out that for such a system to work, the E.U.’s external borders first need to be controlled effectively, especially with the help of Turkey. Without those controls, people barred from travelling to Europe as part of a quota system will continue to try to get there illegally.
“The external borders must be firmly protected. Then people can be let in — through quotas.”
At its party convention last Friday, the CSU called for a quota to be set just for Germany, as a way of imposing an upper limit on refugee numbers. Stephan Mayer, a CSU lawmaker, said up to half a million per year could be possible.
The Social Democrats have said they are open to the quota idea. Their parliamentary floor leader, Thomas Oppermann, said the quotas should be determined by the E.U. and the U.N.’s refugee agency. The basis should be “how many people we can integrate and how good our integration measures are,” he said.
But the conservatives first need to settle their differences with the Social Democrats over new measures to cope with the influx. A special cabinet meeting aimed at approving draft legislation was cancelled Monday because of disagreements on a number of points, including how to speed up the processing of asylum claims and stricter controls of medical and psychological reports preventing rejected asylum seekers from being expelled.
There is also disagreement on how long underage migrants should have to wait before their families are allowed to travel to Germany to join them. The interior ministry has pointed out that over 57,000 unaccompanied minors have come to Germany so far this year. Germany wants to deter people from sending their children on the dangerous journey.
Sources told Handelsblatt that the Social Democrat’s leader, Sigmar Gabriel, was opposed to the conservatives’ plan for stricter limits on families joining minors. The party is also opposed to a plan to make refugees pay for some of their integration courses.
Senior lawmakers from the ruling parties will meet Thursday to work out a compromise. The clock is ticking.
Daniel Delhaes and Till Hoppe cover policy in Berlin for Handelsblatt. John Blau contributed to this story. To contact the authors: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org