Post-election Problem

Merkel’s Unsolved Refugee Question

main 48687096 source Zsolt Szigetvary DPA – Asylum seeker Budapest Hungary Keleti station Sept 4 2015 wearing Merkel photo heading on foot for Germany
Refugees are still knocking on Germany's doors. Source: Zsolt Szigetvary / DPA

The head of the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, also known as Frontex, says it straight: the continent needs more cooperation at EU level to reduce the inflow of refugees. “What we need now, are clear, collective rules for all (refugee) groups – otherwise migration pressure will not abate,” Fabrice Leggeri told Handelsblatt at Frontex’s head office in Warsaw, Poland. A unified approach is needed to process asylum requests, repatriate rejected applicants and protect the EU’s external borders.

His remarks come two years after almost 900,000 refugees entered Germany and hundreds of thousands came to Europe, many fleeing war in Syria and Afghanistan. Back then, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-door policy earned her praise and scorn. And more recently, it cost her votes in the election when the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany party won 13 percent of votes and will be the first far-right party to enter parliament since 1960.

Ms. Merkel’s troubles continue beyond the election as the Christian Social Union, the CDU’s Bavarian sister party, now insists on a refugee cap as a precondition in the coming coalition talks.

Bavaria, home to the CSU, saw many of the asylum seekers who entered Germany from Austria and the Czech Republic. While numbers have dropped since 2015 and 2016, each month, 10,000 to 15,000 people come to Germany from the Balkans seeking refuge. Under European law, they’re supposed to apply for asylum in the first EU country they enter, which is typically Greece. Since this didn’t always happen, Mr. Leggeri said Frontex was working with German and EU authorities to discover why.

Mr. Leggeri, a French citizen, became director of the EU agency early in 2015 ahead of the spike in refugee numbers that summer. In response, European governments rapidly expanded Frontex from 350 employees to 2000.

But a further problem facing authorities is the failure of EU countries to accept the refugees distributed across the bloc — a fundamental problem for Frontex. “We need more EU,” Mr. Leggeri said. “The EU states need a joint policy to protect the external borders and guarantee security within the bloc.”

He defended Frontex against the suggestion that its increase in funding spelled the start of fortress Europe. Mr. Leggeri insisted that people fleeing war and persecution must have the right to asylum in Europe but added that the EU needs secure borders to maintain its principles including combating irregular migration, crime and terror.

A unified approach to deport rejected asylum seekers is also needed, Mr. Leggeri said. “We need a uniform legal framework. We have not managed to create it through the existing repatriation directive.” The EU should consider a decree to introduce binding rules for all EU member states, he said.

On Wednesday, the European Commission will propose new guidelines to member states on repatriating rejected asylum seekers. Frontex currently deports refugees on behalf of EU countries, and ran 220 flights last year, up from 65 in 2015. This year, the number is already even higher than last, Mr. Leggeri said, but inefficiencies remain in the system.

More flights won’t necessarily reduce the number of people coming to Germany. And for now, Ms. Merkel will need all her negotiation skills as she struggles to form a new coalition, keeping her Bavarian ally, the CSU, on-board and uniting the refugee-friendly Greens and the pro-business Free Democrats.

The European Union Map-01 EU E.U. euro zone

Gilbert Kreijger is an editor with Handelsblatt Global. Till Hoppe reports on politics for Handelsblatt, with a focus on defense, domestic policy and cyber issues. To contact the authors: and

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