Chancellor Angela Merkel won a standing ovation of more than seven minutes from her ruling Christian Democrats today after pledging to “tangibly reduce” the number of refugees entering Germany, in a speech to silence critics who have demanded a halt to the influx.
But in her keynote address to more than 3,000 Christian Democrat (CDU) delegates at a party congress in Karlsruhe, Ms Merkel effectively threw down the gauntlet to the rest of Europe and insisted that it share the burden in helping to solve the problem.
“We face the biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War,” she told the party faithful. Appealing to other EU members for help she called for solidarity, saying that Europe faced a “historic test” and insisting: “The fight for a unified Europe is worthwhile – of that I am deeply convinced.”
Ms Merkel conceded that overcoming the problems facing Germany, which has accepted over a million migrants in 2015 alone, amounted to a “ giant task”.
But the Chancellor flatly refused to accept demands from within her own ranks to set an “upper limit” on the migrant influx, or for the installation of Berlin Wall-style fortifications and controls on Germany’s borders.
Amount of German government aid to Turkey to help with refugees
Reiterating the impassioned remarks she made at the beginning of the refugee crisis in the summer, she told delegates: “We are going to manage this – if there are obstacles to overcome, then we will have to work to overcome them. We are ready to show what we are made of.” It was Germany’s “humanitarian duty” to take in war refugees, she added.
But the Chancellor also stuck doggedly to her previous line, which envisages solving the refugee crisis though European co-operation, international diplomacy and financial support for those countries worst affected by the crisis.
Ms Merkel’s speech won unanimous backing of delegates in a vote – but was an attempt to buy time. She does not face a general election until 2017 and she has made sure that as yet there is no politician of sufficient stature within her party who is able to challenge her for the Chancellor’s job. However, most commentators in Germany agree that if she fails to resolve the refugee crisis, her future as Chancellor is doomed.
Ms Merkel said she was committed to sharing the burden of the crisis with Germany’s European Union neighbours. She wants to reinvigorate the Schengen agreement on passport-free travel within the EU by strengthing its external frontiers; and to provide financial support to front line refugee countries such as Turkey, which is currently providing sanctuary for two million migrants.
When voters decide next Chancellor in general election
The speech was also an attempt to silence a growing number of critics within the party who claim that she has lost control of the refugee influx. As the migrant crisis deepened in recent months, several CDU MPs called for an upper limit to be set and for the reinstatement of national border controls.
Ms Merkel herself has been accused of “not having a plan” for the refugee crisis and at party meetings she was recently confronted by placard waving party members demanding that she resign. Opinion polls show that some 60 per cent of Germans want a halt to the refugee influx.
Mounting public dissatisfaction prompted the Christian Democrat youth wing to table a motion yesterday calling for the influx to be capped, which would have amounted to a severe political embarrassment for Ms Merkel. But late on Sunday, the Chancellor and her team negotiated a compromise wording which said the party would do its best to “tangibly reduce” the number of refugees arriving, and would impose border controls only “if necessary”.
Paul Ziemiak, the youth wing’s leader, claimed the new wording as a victory for his standpoint yesterday and said he had been persuaded to drop his demands for a cap. “It sends the right signal and shows that the CDU takes the concerns of local authorities seriously,” he said. “In the long term no society can cope with such numbers.”
Ms Merkel said that achieving a genuine reduction in refugee numbers depended on Germany backing tougher measures on the EU’s frontiers, with special emphasis on the sea between Greece and Turkey, which has been crossed by thousands of Syrian refugees.
She also underlined the importance of €3bn (£2.2bn) of German government aid to Turkey to help the country cope with its two million-strong refugee population, and announced measures that would lead to speeding up the return of migrants from so-called “safe countries” who failed to qualify for asylum.
Ms Merkel did not waver in her conviction that Europe could be persuaded to share the burden. Peter Altmaier, head of her refugee crisis office, told The Independent that despite eastern European countries’ reluctance to accept refugees, he was optimistic. “Germany will lead a coalition of the willing. In Europe it always takes time to solve such dilemmas,” he said.
Her speech enabled her party to rally round her unanimously in a show of badly needed solidarity ahead of key regional elections next year. But not every delegate was wholly enthusiastic. “It was an exercise in re-wording,” said Michael Schweizer, a spokesman for the CDU’s business council. “But many of us are still mainly interested in seeing concrete action.”Reuse content