Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel and her Austrian counterpart, Werner Faymann, had led the charge earlier this week demanding that European leaders come together to sort out the refugee crisis at the continent’s borders.
On Thursday, E.U. Council President Donald Tusk responded to their calls, convening a special summit for next Wednesday.
There will be a long list of discussion topics. Ms. Merkel and Mr. Faymann want the 28-nation bloc to discuss providing more support for the refugees in their home countries, better cooperation with Turkey and the setting up of “hot spots” in Greece and Italy to register the hundreds of thousands of refugees streaming towards the continent from war-torn countries in Africa and the Middle East.
The leadership summit is an answer to the failure of lower-level ministers to reach a deal. Talks between E.U. interior ministers collapsed last week over how to best distribute the burden among the E.U.’s member states. These ministers will have another go on Tuesday, just before the leaders take charge.
“Better late than never,” was the response of Guy Verhofstadt, the head of the liberal party movement in the European Parliament, to news of the summit.
The European Parliament on Thursday increased the pressure on member states to agree to the distribution of 120,000 refugees across the bloc, voting in favor of the European Commission’s proposal for fixed quotas. “We face a historic test,” said Parliamentary President Martin Schulz.
The challenges have only become more complex in the last few days. Hungary’s controversial policy of shutting its border to Serbia has pushed refugees to look for alternative routes to Europe – most are now moving towards Croatia.
Back home in Germany, however, Ms. Merkel is struggling with a refugee policy without a rudder after the resignation of a key official involved in coordinating the country’s migration response.
Manfred Schmidt, the head of Germany’s refugee office, quit on Thursday following a barrage of criticism of its handling of record numbers of asylum-seekers. Ostensibly, Mr. Schmidt, 56, departed for “personal reasons.” No-one in Berlin believed that and opposition parties claimed he was being sacrificed to shield his boss, Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière, who himself has come under increasing fire.
A look at Mr. Schmidt’s resume shows he’s no stranger to handling emergencies. Before his appointment as president of the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees in 2010, he spent three years running the interior ministry’s department of crisis management and civil protection.
But the refugee crisis appears to have got the better of him. His departure leaves his office without a chief at a time when it has to process at least 800,000 asylum claims this year – a massive increase on previous years.
The leadership summit is an answer to the failure of lower-level ministers to reach a deal.
The interior ministry denied a claim by Simone Peter, co-chairwoman of the opposition Greens, that Mr. Schmidt was a scapegoat to take Mr. de Maizière out of the firing line especially from regional states that are bearing the brunt of housing and caring for asylum-seekers.
“It is unacceptable to try to make political capital out of a personal resignation,” Deputy Interior Minister Ole Schröder told Handelsblatt. Government sources said Mr. de Maizière thought highly of Mr. Schmidt’s work and that he couldn’t be regarded as a scapegoat because the minister wasn’t blaming him for any mistakes.
In a statement, Mr. de Maizière said: “The interior minister regrets the loss of the head of an authority who did an excellent job.”
He added: “The Office for Migration and Refugees is in focus in the current political situation. The dramatically rising number of asylum seekers in Germany poses enormous challenges to the Office as well as to Germany’s states and municipalities.”
The office’s decision in late August to allow refugees from Syria into Germany regardless of where they entered the E.U. — ignoring rules that refugees should be registered in the E.U. country they first set foot in — was widely seen as triggering an upsurge in the number of asylum seekers reaching Germany in the last few weeks.
Many of Germany’s 16 federal states didn’t share Mr. de Maizière’s stated assessment that Mr. Schmidt had done an excellent job. Even Chancellor Merkel recently hinted that she wasn’t satisfied. The structure of the office was “not yet optimal,” she had told members of parliament from her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party.
The Federal Employment Agency, which pays out unemployment benefits and helps people find work and training, will now provide more help for the refugee office, sources said. The head of the agency, Frank-Jürgen Weise, is regarded as a possible successor to Mr. Schmidt, said members of Ms. Merkel’s coalition. He won praise for modernizing the employment agency.
But the criticism hasn’t just been leveled at the refugee office, which is sitting on a pile of 300,000 asylum applications. The large states of North Rhine-Westphalia and Bavaria have voiced sharp accusations of Mr. de Maizière’s own crisis management.
Bavarian governor Horst Seehofer, the leader of the Christian Social Union, the CDU’s Bavarian sister party, said the minister had acted “too late and not firmly enough” in tackling problems at the overwhelmed refugee office.
The governor of North Rhine-Westphalia, Hannelore Kraft, said the office’s slow processing of asylum claims meant that states and local authorities were now stretched to the limits of their capacity for accommodating refugees.
Even in the state of Saxony, which is ruled by the CDU, Mr. de Maizière’s party, a government official said: “The person with control over the refugee office is responsible.” The scale of the influx of refugees had been underestimated, even by Ms. Merkel, the official said. It was like with a burst water pipe: everyone was trying to tackle the problem with buckets rather than switching off the water.
The interior ministry rebuffed the charges. “With such rapidly increasing numbers it’s impossible for the authorities to keep step,” said Mr. Schröder, the deputy minister. The regional states themselves were overwhelmed by the influx and were getting massive help from the federal government, he added.
Günter Krings, the other deputy interior minister, said: “Governor Kraft evidently wants to distract from her own failings in North Rhine-Westphalia,” he said.
Burkhard Lischka, domestic policy spokesman for the center-left Social Democrats, junior coalition partner to Ms. Merkel’s conservatives, called on all sides to stop the blame game.
The priority now was to beef up the staff of the refugee office by a further 1,000 officers on top of the 2,000 new positions already decided, he said.
“Otherwise Schmidt’s successor, whoever that may be, won’t be able to solve the problems.”
Handelsblatt’s Daniel Delhaes and Till Hoppe write about politics from the Berlin bureau. Thomas Ludwig covers politics from Brussels. Frank Specht also contributed to this story. To contact the authors: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com