Cri­sis for Merkel as im­mi­gra­tion row leads to calls for vote of con­fi­dence

The Guardian - - NEWS - Jon Hen­ley Kate Con­nolly Ber­lin Sam Jones Madrid

An­gela Merkel has come un­der in­tense pres­sure to tighten Ger­many’s refugee poli­cies or risk the col­lapse of her coali­tion govern­ment, as an in­creas­ingly ur­gent ar­gu­ment over how to han­dle ir­reg­u­lar mi­gra­tion shakes Europe.

While the stand­off be­tween the chan­cel­lor and her in­te­rior min­is­ter, Horst See­hofer, wors­ened yes­ter­day, the French pres­i­dent, Em­manuel Macron, and Italy’s new prime min­is­ter, Giuseppe Conte, said they would dis­cuss “new ini­tia­tives” on im­mi­gra­tion this week in Paris.

A day after the Austrian chan­cel­lor, Se­bas­tian Kurz, called on an “axis of the will­ing” to tackle the EU’s mi­gra­tion im­passe, Pope Fran­cis also weighed into the de­bate, de­mand­ing more in­ter­na­tional co­op­er­a­tion on refugees and a “change of mind­set” from politi­cians ev­ery­where.

Merkel and See­hofer spoke for two and a half hours on Wed­nes­day night with­out reach­ing agree­ment on the hard­line in­te­rior min­is­ter’s de­mand that refugees who ar­rive at Ger­many’s bor­ders should be turned back.

The chan­cel­lor is said to have urged See­hofer to wait un­til the EU sum­mit on 28 June, at which she will seek a Europe-wide agree­ment. But See­hofer re­port­edly told her the EU had failed to forge a com­mon pol­icy since the refugee cri­sis erupted in 2015 and it was hardly cred­i­ble to think it would do so by the end of the month.

A Bun­destag ses­sion was in­ter­rupted for two hours yes­ter­day morn­ing so that Merkel’s Chris­tian Democrats (CDU) and their Bavar­ian sister party the CSU, to which See­hofer be­longs, could hold sep­a­rate emer­gency meet­ings.

Merkel, the EU’s long­est-serv­ing leader, called im­mi­gra­tion “a lit­mus test for Europe” re­quir­ing “a truly uni­fied ap­proach” on Wed­nes­day. But amid signs that sup­port for her within the CDU is dwin­dling on the is­sue, it has also be­come a flash­point for mount­ing ten­sions within her own con­ser­va­tive bloc.

Italy and France, mean­while, sought to patch up a wors­en­ing diplo­matic row over the same ques­tion trig­gered by Macron’s de­scrip­tion of a de­ci­sion by the Ital­ian in­te­rior min­is­ter, Mat­teo Salvini, to deny a mi­grant res­cue ship ac­cess to Italy’s ports as “an act of cyn­i­cism and ir­re­spon­si­bil­ity”.

Rome sum­moned France’s am­bas­sador on Wed­nes­day and Salvini, leader of the far-right League party, de­manded an apol­ogy, but the Elysée palace said yes­ter­day the French pres­i­dent had “not made any com­ment in­tended to of­fend Italy or the Ital­ian peo­ple” and that Paris sought “con­struc­tive di­a­logue”.

The row cen­tred on the ship Aquar­ius, now on its way to Va­len­cia in Spain with 629 mi­grants res­cued off the coast of Libya last week. The ship, op­er­ated by the char­ity SOS Méditer­ranée, was turned away by both Italy and Malta.

Ital­ian in­te­rior min­is­ter

Salvini in­sisted yes­ter­day that ships “be­long­ing to for­eign or­gan­i­sa­tions and fly­ing for­eign flags will not be al­lowed to dic­tate Italy’s im­mi­gra­tion pol­icy”.

More than 1.8 mil­lion mi­grants have ar­rived in Europe since 2014 and Italy is cur­rently shel­ter­ing 170,000 asy­lum seek­ers and an es­ti­mated 500,000 un­reg­is­tered mi­grants. More than 1 mil­lion mi­grants ar­rived in Ger­many in the sum­mer of 2015 after Merkel opened the coun­try’s bor­ders.

The June sum­mit in Brus­sels is due to dis­cuss pro­pos­als to change the union’s asy­lum laws, which cur­rently re­quire refugees to ap­ply for asy­lum in the first EU coun­try they en­ter – usu­ally Italy or Greece.

But the bloc is bit­terly di­vided over how to share the bur­den be­tween south­ern “front­line” states, north­ern “des­ti­na­tion” coun­tries, and hard­line cen­tral and east Euro­pean gov­ern­ments such as Hun­gary and Poland which want noth­ing to do with any com­pul­sory quota sys­tem.

In an interview with the Guardian, Spain’s for­eign min­is­ter, Josep Bor­rell, a for­mer pres­i­dent of the Euro­pean par­lia­ment, said Europe “has to find agree­ment over the way to take in asy­lum seek­ers. The ap­proach of peo­ple ask­ing for asy­lum in the first coun­try they reach is now man­i­festly an ob­so­lete rule that doesn’t work.”

Bor­rell warned that be­cause peo­ple of­ten do not want to stay in the coun­try they first ar­rive in, “un­less we can find a so­lu­tion to these prob­lems, Europe’s Schen­gen sys­tem will col­lapse”.

Fall­out from the im­mi­gra­tion ar­gu­ment could prove most dra­matic in Ger­many, where See­hofer’s CSU faces a state elec­tion in Oc­to­ber in which it is des­per­ate to stave off the chal­lenge of the anti-im­mi­grant Al­ter­na­tive for Ger­many (AfD).

Party lead­ers be­lieve the CSU needs to be firm on the emo­tive im­mi­gra­tion is­sue, open­ing a po­ten­tially dam­ag­ing rift with Merkel’s CDU and pro­vok­ing the worst cri­sis of the veteran chan­cel­lor’s fourth-term coali­tion, which took more than six months to build after in­con­clu­sive elec­tions last year.

The in­te­rior min­is­ter’s main de­mand is that asy­lum seek­ers be turned back at the Ger­man bor­der if they en­tered the EU in an­other coun­try, or have al­ready ap­plied for asy­lum in Ger­many and had their ap­pli­ca­tions turned down. Merkel has said it would be il­le­gal for Ger­many to take such a uni­lat­eral step, which would dam­age at­tempts to shape a com­pre­hen­sive EU pol­icy, but re­port­edly of­fered a com­pro­mise, propos­ing bi­lat­eral agree­ments with Italy and Greece.

See­hofer’s de­ci­sion to back out of at­tend­ing an in­te­gra­tion sum­mit in Ber­lin on Wed­nes­day only in­creased the ten­sion. He went in­stead to meet Kurz, after which the two an­nounced a three-way “axis of the will­ing” be­tween Aus­tria, Ger­many and Italy to fight il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion.

The move was seen as a de­lib­er­ate shun­ning of Merkel and an out­right re­jec­tion of her ideas on mi­gra­tion. Polls sug­gest 65% of Ger­mans re­ject Merkel’s stance and would like to see tighter con­trols at Ger­many’s bor­ders.

‘Ships fly­ing for­eign flags will not dic­tate im­mi­gra­tion pol­icy’ Mat­teo Salvini


▲ Mi­grants at Tar­ifa in Spain wrapped in Red Cross blan­kets

See­hofer and Merkel are in a stand­off over mi­gra­tion pol­icy

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