On Wednesday, Germany's vice chancellor Sigmar Gabriel was meant to present the latest figures on the German economy. Instead, he gave an impassioned speech about the country's strength and the refugee crisis.
It was one more contribution in the fierce, ongoing dispute about how to handle the influx of refugees fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East and North Africa.
As unprecedented numbers of people seeking asylum come to Germany, politicians are increasingly polarized over how to handle the situation and the divisions may threaten the governing coalition of Social Democrats and Christian Democrats.
On Thursday afternoon, Germany's governing politicians will meet to consider measures to manage the crisis, including the question whether refugees can bring their families to Germany too.
Mr. Gabriel is not only minister of economics in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition, he is also the deputy chancellor, as well as the leader of the Social Democrats, the junior coalition partner. His speech about the refugee crisis was a balancing act, downplaying splits in the cabinet, while also defending his party’s record in the crisis.
“We’re not fighting each other in government,” Mr. Gabriel said – in fact, the cabinet was “working together quite well.” He acknowledged the tension between Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democrats and the Christian Social Union, their fractious Bavarian sister party. But, said Mr. Gabriel, it was important the government did not give the impression that it has lost control.
On Thursday, two key meetings will take place. First, a summit of the three party leaders, with Ms. Merkel and Mr. Gabriel meeting Horst Seehofer, the head of the CSU with a stubbornly tough stance on the migration question.
Directly afterwards, the chancellor will meet the premiers of the 16 federal states. Their state governments are responsible for much of the day-to-day handling of the refugee influx.
This week, politicians have raised the difficulties local authorities are facing as they process unprecedented numbers of people seeking asylum. State leaders, regardless of their party affiliation, will be looking to see progress on concrete issues of provision and integration.
We need measures which will actually bring about a clear reduction in refugee numbers. Stanislaw Tillich, state premier, Saxony
"We need measures which will actually bring about a clear reduction in refugee numbers,” said Stanislaw Tillich, the state premier of Saxony, who is a member of Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democratic party. This needed to happen on a European as well as a German-wide scale, he added. Reiner Haseloff, his CDU counterpart in the neighboring state of Saxony-Anhalt, demanded that “better border security measures” be discussed at the meeting with Ms. Merkel.
Malu Dreyer, head of the Western German state of Rhineland-Palatinate, which will vote on a new government in March, on Wednesday demanded the government up the budget for integration measures in the states by €5 billion to 7 billion.
"States have already invested this sum many times over," the SPD politician said. "It's time we finally reach a point to approve a joint integration plan," she added.
At first, progress seemed a little more possible on Wednesday. Mr Gabriel said he was “reasonably hopeful” the CSU would vote for "Asylum Package 2,” a set of measures agreed by the coalition parties in November, but blocked ever since.
One key question is when asylum seekers can bring their families to join them.
People granted asylum have the right to apply to bring their families but this process can take a long time. Some politicians are calling for extended waiting periods until family members can be brought to Germany.
Mr. Gabriel said a deal on family reunification was possible, with limitations on family reunification extended to some Syrian refugees, but with no extension on their waiting period.
Other CSU politicians disagreed. General secretary Andreas Scheuer made clear that he would have no renegotiation of the November deal. In November, Mr. Gabriel agreed to extended family-reunification waiting periods.
“We do not want to compromise on what is already a compromise,” Mr. Scheuer said. The failure to push through the “Asylum Package 2” was the fault of one man, he said: Sigmar Gabriel. The Social Democrats answered back straight away, with party vice-chairman Ralf Stegner accusing the CSU of “blockading” talks. They were “constantly raising new issues and quibbling about old ones,” he said.
Concerning which refugees have the right to bring their families to Germany, the Social Democrats said there was also a verbal agreement to exclude Syrian refugees from the measure. But politicians from the conservative CSU said no: the deal on paper is the deal, and no changes.
The Social Democrats are prepared, it seems, to make concessions about North African countries, accepting that Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia will now be defined as “safe states,” making it harder for their citizens to make asylum claims. But conservative politicians resent the fact that the Social Democrats would even present this as a concession. Given the security problems associated with North African migrants, this should be self-evident, they say, not a matter of negotiation.
We do not want to compromise on what is already a compromise. Andreas Scheuer, General Secretary, Christian Social Union
The back-and-forth is testing some politicians' patience. The whole debate around migration and refugees, one conservative parliamentarian told Handelsblatt, was now “like something out of a madhouse.” On Tuesday, he said, a meeting of the Christian Democrat parliamentary party with Ms. Merkel had spent three hours on the refugee issue before even getting down to the regular agenda.
The state premiers hope that the coalition can put their disputes behind them on Thursday, and finally begin to make progress. Mr. Tillich demanded that the federal government make “robust suggestions” on concrete integration measures. What had been proposed so far was not nearly enough, he added.
The Social Democrats want to use the meeting between the federal and state governments to push the party's own “integration plan.” This includes a substantial expansion of schools and kindergartens, with 80,000 new kindergarten places and 20,000 new kindergarten teachers. They also plan an expansion of after-school care, with some 25,000 new teaching assistants. On top of that, 100,000 government-subsidized “work opportunity placements” would make it easier for new arrivals to enter the job market.
The Social Democrats, backed by a number of industry groups, have called for a guarantees for refugees who undertake an apprenticeship: they should feel certain they can stay in Germany for the apprenticeship and two years after. Mr. Gabriel said his party’s measures would cost approximately €5 billion annually. The figure also included a proposed wave of new construction of social housing.
Debate in Denmark on the refugee question touched on many of these issues, but with a radical flavor not yet present in German discussions. Yesterday, the Danish parliament passed its own package of measures. These include an extension of the wait for family reunification from 1 to 3 years. Controversially, refugees will be searched at the border and will have valuables confiscated to help pay for their stay in Denmark.
Some Danish parliamentarians say this is the same treatment Danish welfare recipients receive. But the measure came in for bitter criticism both at home and abroad, with Amnesty International saying it was “a black day” for the country, calling the new measures “inhuman.” UN General Secretary Ban-Ki Moon called on Denmark to treat refugees with “sympathy and respect, and in accordance with all their rights.”
Heike Anger writes about economics and politics for Handelsblatt. Daniel Delhaes reports on politics, transport and airlines from Handelsblatt's Berlin office. Dana Heide is a correspondent for Handelsblatt in Berlin, focusing on energy policies, small and medium-sized companies and innovation. Frank Specht is based at Handelsblatt's Berlin bureau, where he focuses on the German labor market and trade unions. To contact the authors: [email protected], [email protected], [email protected], [email protected].