New bestie

Spain’s Sánchez gives Merkel badly-needed backing on migration

Bundeskanzlerin Merkel in Spanien
Here’s some common ground. Source: DPA/Laura León

Angela Merkel is not alone in Europe after all. Until Saturday, the German chancellor barely knew the Spanish prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, who was sworn in two months ago. Yet when Europe’s longest-serving leader visited her newest counterpart over the weekend in Andalusia, the chemistry was great. And the pair made sure everybody noticed.

“Not only do we have a great bilateral relationship, but the German government and the Spanish government have the same approach to solving Europe’s big questions,” Ms. Merkel said in a joint press conference with Mr. Sánchez. She repeatedly addressed the Spanish premier with the informal “du” rather than the formal “Sie.”

Both leaders quickly moved to discuss migration, currently the most explosive topic in European politics. They promoted a shared approach to immigration into the European Union amid growing populist opposition to accepting refugees within the bloc. “We’re just a few kilometers from the African coast, like Malta or Sicily, so this is a challenge we must deal with together and no country can avoid this task,” Ms. Merkel said.

On the day of her arrival in Spain, a bilateral agreement between Berlin and Madrid for the return of asylum seekers took force. Spain was the first EU country to agree to take back migrants turned away by Germany if they have already applied for asylum in Spain. Ms. Merkel is seeking similar agreements with other EU countries to curb “secondary migration” of asylum seekers to Germany, an issue which brought her government to the brink of collapsing two months ago.

Recently, Spain overtook Italy and Greece as the main destination of migrants reaching Europe by sea, with 23,500 people arriving on the Andalusian shores this year so far — close to the Doñana natural reserve where Ms. Merkel visited Mr. Sánchez. However, few of these asylum seekers are likely to reach Germany. The German interior ministry told Handelsblatt that not a single refugee would have met the criteria defined by the bilateral asylum agreement between Berlin and Madrid in the past two months.

Ms. Merkel was keen to underline the importance of the deal — if anything as proof that some EU members are still committed to a European approach rather than unilateral solutions. “The agreement makes it clear that if a country has problems with an issue, we will help that country,” she said, adding that the arrival of refugees was a task for all EU nations, not just those on the Mediterranean front line.

“The European Union is not just any partnership, but one that is founded upon common values,” Ms. Merkel emphasized, and these include human rights and human dignity. She said those values were endangered as racism surged across the bloc. “We need to determinedly combat those racist tendencies.”

Backing Berlin on the euro zone

And it’s not just on asylum policy that Mr. Sánchez emerged as a providential ally to Ms. Merkel. When he visited the chancellor in Berlin in June shortly after taking office, he said his government would “enthusiastically support” the French-German proposals for the euro zone, which include establishing a shared budget.

This is great news for Ms. Merkel, because judging by the reactions that ensued after the blueprint was unveiled in June, the plans could be just as divisive across the euro area as the asylum dispute across the EU.

Both leaders also agreed to push the EU to provide more help to countries like Morocco. The North African nation, whose coast is visible from Spain across the strait of Gibraltar, is one of the main points of departure for migrants wanting to reach Europe. Mr. Sánchez said he and Ms. Merkel were calling on the European Commission to unlock aid to allow Morocco to better control its borders.

“We share a common vision about the strength of the EU,” Mr. Sánchez said, adding that Germany and Spain would be united at an EU summit in Salzburg, Austria, next month.

Jean-Michel Hauteville is an editor with Handelsblatt Global in Berlin. To reach the author:

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