Julia Klöckner is the deputy chairwoman of the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and is campaigning to become premier of the German state of Rhineland-Palatinate in its election next month. The regional election is one of three taking place on March 13, and they will be an important barometer of the electorate's mood in the midst of the refugee crisis.
Ms. Klöckner has long been viewed as a protégée of Chancellor Angela Merkel's. Yet in recent months she has been increasingly critical of the government’s policies in dealing with refugees. She has proposed an alternative approach, the so-called Plan A2, which is being interpreted as a move to distance herself from the chancellor.
Her plan calls for a Europe-wide network of refugee processing centers and more efficient deportation measures. She has also demanded a limit to the number of refugees allowed into Germany and wants daily quotas to be introduced based on the intake capacities of municipalities.
Since she introduced the plan, some of her fellow conservatives have begun to see her as a serious alternative party leader to Ms. Merkel.
According to the latest polls, Ms. Klöckner is on track to emerge from the election on March 13 as the leader of a coalition in Rhineland-Palatinate. She spoke with Handelsblatt about her path forward.
Ms. Klöckner, shouldn’t you be a bit disappointed by your chancellor?
Ms. Klöckner: The impressive thing about Angela Merkel is what she has achieved for our country and her untiring commitment to holding Europe and our society together. Together with the Christian Democratic Union and its Bavarian sister party, Christian Social Union, she is the driver in overcoming these challenges. That can be seen in the recently passed second asylum policy package. All the legislative changes to reduce the number of refugees came from conservatives and the chancellor. On the other hand, she keeps her eyes focused in the direction of Europe and the world community. I have no idea who should do all of that other than Angela Merkel – certainly not Mr. Gabriel! [Sigmar Gabriel is vice chancellor and head of the junior coalition party, the Social Democrats.]
What are your intentions for your Plan A2, which the government spokesman has said is not government policy?
Our plan is envisioned as a supplement, not an alternative, in case Plan A doesn’t work. We have to take a two-pronged approach. It will be very important at the European Union summit in February to obtain results that will appreciably reduce the numbers of refugees.
But Germany can’t allow itself to be dependent on just the unanimity in the E.U. or goodwill of others. When the securing of the E.U.’s external borders can’t be taken forward by all, then Germany must act bilaterally with Greece, Italy and Turkey – and that is certainly already happening.
So what would be good results from Brussels four weeks before state elections?
World problems and results in Brussels aren’t guided by state elections. Solutions commensurate with the challenges must be found incrementally, and independent of an election date. But Europe should finally recognize that solidarity is not a one-way street. Everyone must finally do their part for World Hunger Aid and the United Nations Refugee Agency. And it is crucial that we make progress in securing the E.U.’s external borders. It isn’t enough to determine once again that facilities at most of the hot spots in Greece and Italy are still under construction and only one is almost finished. There must be a clear timetable. Others are finding even these results too meager – the CSU, for example.
Do you still have an understanding and sympathy for the weekly threats from Bavaria, the southern state which is seeing the most arrivals of refugees?
Bavaria is feeling the effects of the refugee crisis more intensely than others. I can understand that Bavaria is under particular pressure and it would be inappropriate to be giving advice from Rhineland-Palatinate. But Bavaria profits as much as we do from open borders and cross-border trade. To that extent, I understand the Bavarians up to 99 percent. In the other 1 percent, we are not together. The CSU talks of an upper limit in numbers written in stone; I am talking about a flexible daily quota that tends to be more equitable with the changing situation and can also be implemented with open borders.
Would you like to give the same advice to Horst Seehofer [the premier of Bavaria and CSU chairman] that you gave to critics within the CDU, “Just shut up for once!”?
One certainly shouldn’t have to comment again on things said behind closed doors. My appeal is directed at the SPD, to implement what has been adopted. We certainly don’t have a lack of knowledge in our analysis of the situation. It is getting us nowhere to constantly repeat this analysis. It's of little help to say you are for a reduction of refugee numbers, but to block everything related to achieving that. The Asylum Package II was on ice for three months. The SPD had unnecessarily slowed it down. Whoever speaks out should make viable proposals and that’s what I did.
CDU voters don’t like controversy – does that make things more difficult for your election campaign?
Discussions and the exchange of differing opinions define democracy. Those who always see it as nothing but quarreling and fighting are doing a disservice to the culture of debate. The SPD and the Greens are facing a crucial test. The one is for a mandatory place of residence for refugees, the other against. First all were against compulsory integration, then suddenly some are for it. This back and forth doesn’t make things easier. There is complete agreement within the CDU over the core issues. Mandatory integration, non-cash benefits, clear registration procedures, quicker repatriation. Naturally, everybody wishes for the one determining factor in a crisis situation that takes care of everything. But there isn’t such a thing. We can’t get around debating the best way. This doesn’t exclude an open heart and the consequential application of the law.
Is the Bavarian CSU's threat to make a constitutional complaint about the legality of allowing certain numbers of refugees into the country still part of the debate?
We are working on there being no need for such a complaint.
But doesn’t it bother you?
It isn’t complaining but pitching in that helps. I don’t have authority over Bavaria. The CDU and CSU are mainstream parties of the people, built up from the grassroots and very much given to debate. What matters is what comes out in the end – whether it is a solution or a blockade by the SPD and Greens in the Bundesrat, where the 16 federal states are represented.
The right-wing populist Alternative for Germany party (AfD) is constantly gaining in the polls. How must the CDU deal with an anti-immigration party that declares an order to fire on refugees to be legally valid?
All of the parties have to contend with it and confront the crude theories of the AfD with arguments, with eyes wide open, with a clear analysis and counter concept and then fight for that path – as is customary in a democracy. Standing up when things get uncomfortable, and that includes during television discussions before the election. That is the only way to force the AfD to take off its mask. Then none of those who vote for the AfD out of protest can say afterwards that they had no idea who they were voting for.
If the polls prove right, six parties will be sitting in the next state parliament in the Rhineland-Palatinate capital of Mainz. Couldn’t the pro-business Free Democratic Party block your path to the state chancellery with a three-party coalition?
Ultimately, we all have to accept what coalitions the voters make possible for us. But I have come to know the lead candidate of the FDP, Volker Wissing, to be a dependable partner. I don’t see how his economically liberal way of seeing things would fit in with a SPD-Green experiment, which would likely propose concepts like debt burdens and unbiased multiculturalism and educational experiments like “learning to write by ear.” It wouldn’t be a change if SPD and Greens continue to sit together in the government.
And concerning Angela Merkel: Will your election results decide the future of the chancellor?
It is a nice thing for every party chairperson when his or her lead candidates in the states win. We are talking about a state election in which the refugee policy is an important issue but not the only one. Angela Merkel has agreed to make numerous appearances with us. That is a clear sign that she supports us. But we do have to win by ourselves.
This interview was conducted by Robert Birnbaum and originally appeared in Berlin-based daily, Der Tagesspiegel. To contact the author: email@example.com.