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Merkel buys time with party compromise on refugees


Angela Merkel.  PHOTO: Wikipedia

Angela Merkel. PHOTO: Wikipedia

German Chancellor Angela Merkel won a respite on the refugee question with a strong show of unity at a party congress but must deliver results ahead of key elections next year, analysts said.

Merkel turned in a decisive performance at the Christian Democrats’ gathering in the southwestern city of Karlsruhe on Monday, uniting delegates behind a centrist line of humanitarian commitment coupled with a promise to reduce refugee numbers.

Commentators said that predictions of Merkel’s political demise after 10 years in office, rampant just weeks ago, would now go quiet, at least for a time.

“There was a lot of criticism in the run-up to the event but with a clever, feisty appearance, Merkel managed to suddenly make this criticism look quite petty,” news website Spiegel Online said.

“The twilight of Merkel has been called off for now.”

The top-selling Bild called it her “strongest hour”.

Christian Haardt, a member of the legislature in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state, said Merkel’s “inspiring” address would give the CDU momentum ahead of three important state elections in March.

“Merkel’s speech sent the right message of unity and confidence to the party and the rest of the country,” he told AFP.

“But of course party members are more loyal than voters — they are still anxious and will need to be convinced.”

Barbara Klepsch, social affair minister in Saxony, home to the anti-Muslim movement Pegida and the state with the highest number of attacks against refugee shelters, admitted local politicians now had their work cut out for them.

“We’re facing a situation in villages and towns that we haven’t seen since World War II,” she told AFP.

“Our job is now to take this optimistic message that Merkel sent out back to the places where the fears are the biggest.”

After weeks of damaging infighting over an expected one million new arrivals in 2015, Merkel successfully blocked right-wing rebels from having the party adopt a call for a firm cap on refugees.

Instead, she won overwhelming backing for a position paper calling for “a tangible reduction” of asylum seekers.

“We will live up to our humanitarian responsibility,” she vowed.

– ‘A breather, nothing more’ –
The party rewarded her carefully wrought compromise with a lengthy standing ovation and an implicit pledge to honour her call for “patience” for new German policies to take effect and to fight for more EU support for a more equitable distribution of asylum seekers.

Paul Ziemiak, head of the party’s youth wing, which spearheaded the call for an upper limit on refugees, said his supporters had achieved a key symbolic victory.

“We got the message we wanted from the party congress that another refugee onslaught like we’ve seen this year would overwhelm the state and our society in the long-run,” he said.

In one electoral district of North Rhine-Westphalia, he noted, “we are taking in three times as many refugees as all of Poland”.

Merkel’s promise to staunch the flow of refugees was built on medium-to-long term goals, such as tackling the root causes of the mass exodus of people from crisis zones, increased European solidarity in sharing the refugee burden, and greater cooperation with Turkey, the main launchpad for migrant crossings to Europe.

Spiegel noted that such goals would take months if not years to realise.

“But the placated critics at the party congress won’t give her that much time,” it said. “Karlsruhe gave Merkel a breather, nothing more.”

The daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung said Merkel had relied on her time-tested strategy of co-opting her critics’ arguments and thus occupying, even defining, the middle ground in German politics.

Yet despite the overwhelming show of support for Merkel, some critics said the party had failed to calm the fears of the CDU base.

“The position paper goes in the right direction but further steps are needed,” the head of the party’s business wing, Carsten Linnemann, said.

And party deputy leader Julia Kloeckner, a rising star in the party and the CDU’s candidate for state premier in a Rhineland-Palatinate next March, said the platform should have focused more on how to integrate mainly Muslim newcomers into German society.

“Integration shouldn’t be left to chance,” she warned.

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