German chancellor calls emergency summit with government leaders amid claims her coalition is so divided that it is incapable of tackling crisis
Angela Merkel is under mounting pressure to stem the arrival of refugees into Germany before an emergency summit of government leaders on how to deal with the crisis.
The German chancellor has called the crisis talks over the weekend amid widespread accusations her grand coalition is so riven over the issue that its ability to act is being severely affected.
The sense of urgency felt in many parts of Merkel’s administration to reach a unified position only intensified on Friday after reports of further drownings of refugees in the Aegean sea.
The Greek coastguard said it had rescued 144 refugees and recovered 22 bodies, including those of four infants and nine children, after two separate incidents involving boats sinking in the Aegean.
The weather has worsened in recent days, leading to an increase in drownings. Experts said they expected the numbers of deaths to rise.
On Thursday the UNHCR said it had reports from refugees that people smugglers were offering discounts of up to 50% on fees for journeys taken in bad weather on inflatable dinghies.
Thousands of refugees continue to arrive in Germany every day, and the number is expected to reach more than a million by the end of the year.
Despite the tense situation at home, Merkel went ahead with a trade mission to China this week. On her return she is scheduled to meet Horst Seehofer, head of the Christian Social Union (CSU) and prime minister of the southern state of Bavaria – which has been receiving the bulk of the refugees arriving via the Balkans and Austria. The leader of the Social Democrats (SPD), the vice-chancellor, Sigmar Gabriel, will also attend.
Merkel is coming under increasing pressure from within her conservative alliance and from the electorate to show she is managing the crisis amid mounting complaints from municipalities that they are unable to cope with the number of refugees, particular as winter approaches.
The meeting is expected to become a showdown between Merkel and her erstwhile ally Seehofer, who in recent weeks has become her fiercest critic, accusing her of lacking any focused plan and of encouraging refugees to come to Germany in the first place after announcing that all Syrians who arrived would be given asylum.
Seehofer has issued her with an ultimatum if she fails to announce by Sunday a plan to reduce the numbers. The CSU is pushing for so-called transit zones to be erected along Germany’s border in order to better control the arrivals and deport people from countries deemed to be safe.
While Seehofer has been unspecific about what he might threaten to do if the meeting does not go his way, it has been speculated that he might call for refugees arriving in Bavaria to be bussed into other German states, or that he might even withdraw his party from the government.
Before the meeting, Gabriel said the growing feud between Merkel, who is head of the Christian Democrats (CDU) and Seehofer, was threatening both the stability and viability of the government.
“The blackmailing and hurling of insults from both sides is undignified and simply irresponsible,” he told Spiegel on Friday. “Given the big challenge our country is facing because of strong immigration of refugees, the dispute between the CDU and CSU is now threatening the ability of the government to act.”
He also voiced his concerns that the dispute was giving ground to rightwing radicals, who were likely to exploit people’s fears. According to opinion polls. the CDU’s popularity has dropped in recent weeks, to 36%, its lowest level for three years. Surveys show the rightwing anti-immigrant party Alternative für Deutschland is gaining support over the issue.
Pressure on Merkel is also growing within her own party, according to CDU MP Christian Stetten who said a petition had been prepared urging the chancellor to limit the number of refugees allowed into Germany.
He told the financial newspaper Handelsblatt that the signatories were waiting to see what would emerge from the weekend meetings before issuing any demands. Jens Spahn, a popular CDU member and critic of Merkel’s refugee policy, said more measures needed to be introduced to restrict numbers such as limiting refugees’ “ability to allow their families to follow them later”.
As most of the arrivals have so far consisted of young men, the expectation is that many family members are hoping to follow. Earlier this week Merkel rejected Seehofer’s ultimatum, saying: “We cannot switch the button in one go – we must proceed step by step.”