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Migration compromise poses dilemma for Social Democrats

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The incredible shrinking party. Source: Reuters

The compromise on migration between the two parties in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative alliance presents a dilemma for their Social Democratic (SPD) coalition partner. It is yet another example of why the “grand coalition” is bad for the SPD’s health.

The center-left party has to sign off on the refugee transit centers agreed upon by Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU). The CSU is headed by Horst Seehofer, a rebellious interior minister. But the fenced-in camps, which resemble nothing so much as prisons, go against the grain of the SPD and its progressive, inclusive principles. Prominent party leaders have spoken out against it and warned the SPD cannot “buckle under.”

The proposed transit centers are “absurd, impractical and outrageous,” said Aziz Bozkurt, head of an SPD working group on migration. In reality, the whole dispute was “a merciless struggle for power in the Union parties waged on the backs of refugees.”

SPD on thin ice

And yet the SPD has little choice. Its support, already drastically diminished in the 2017 election, has fallen even further in opinion polls. It can hardly provoke a crisis that could result in a collapse of the government and new elections. The 20.5 percent the SPD won in the election has since gone as low as 15.5 percent in one poll and now hovers around 18 percent, less than half the 40.9 percent it reached in the 1998 election.

The SPD wrested a number of big cabinet positions – including the foreign and finance ministries – from a Chancellor Merkel desperate to build a coalition that would keep her in power. There is no chance that they would gain similar sway if new elections were called.

But what good is sway if you can’t use it? This is the bind for the SPD as it debates whether to accept the CDU-CSU compromise on migration.

Getting real

CSU parliamentary leader Alexander Dobrindt is optimistic the SPD will add its approval. The coalition met Monday evening as the compromise was being hammered and made progress, he said. In what sounded like damning with faint praise, he said that SPD chief Andrea Nahles “is moving significantly closer to reality” on the migration issue than the SPD has in the past.

One of the reasons is that the SPD base shares many of the conservatives’ reservations about immigration. They are particularly concerned with the problems cities have in absorbing the influx of refugees. The rank and file had trouble understanding, for instance, why the party leadership was so eager to push a generous family reunification policy for refugees.

The difficulty now is to bring these contrary views under the same roof. As the SPD wrestles with the issue, it is falling back on the customary technique of stalling for time. “We expect the interior minister to concretize his plans in detail and to present an appropriate concept quickly,” said Burkhard Lischka, the SPD’s parliamentary spokesman on migration issues.

Laming the duck

As the two Union parties were locked in combat Monday, the SPD presented its own five-point plan for migration. It specifically rules out unilateral action to turn away refugees at the border and makes no mention of closed transit centers even though the EU summit the previous weekend listed them as a possible solution.

To turn around now and accept the compromise puts the SPD in a bad light. “If the SPD agrees,” said Katrin Göring-Eckardt, floor leader for the Greens environmentalist party, “then it will be nothing more than a lame duck until the end of their legislative term.”

While it is unlikely the SPD will balk in this instance and jeopardize the coalition, it is also increasingly unlikely that this coalition will be able to limp along until its term ends in 2021.

Martin Greive and Klaus Stratmann are Handelsblatt reporters in Berlin. Darrell Delamaide adapted this story into English for Handelsblatt Global. To contact the authors: greive@handelsblatt.com and stratmann@handelsblatt.com.

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