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In Merkel's moment of crisis, a chance to seize middle ground on migration?

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has seen her coalition shaken as close allies turn against her migration policies. But the crisis could be the opportunity needed to reform Europe's approach to immigration.

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Syrian refugee Anas Modamani took a selfie with German Chancellor Angela Merkel outside a refugee camp near the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees after registration at Berlin's Spandau district in September 2015.

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In a corner of Germany celebrated for its bucolic charm, this Bavarian town’s lack of rolling, pastoral fields, and half-timbered houses doesn’t exactly make it a tourist destination – that is unless you ask party officials of the ruling Christian Social Union (CSU).

The governor repeatedly uses the phrase “asylum tourism” for the migrants who trekked through the province during the refugee crisis in 2015 . They continue to do so, even if at a fraction of their earlier pace. And now his party colleague, Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, has floated a plan to close the border altogether.

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Such harder-line proposals have divided Germany’s government, with Chancellor Angela Merkel of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) calling it counter to the open borders that are the essence of Europe. But here in Waldkraiburg, which hosts nearly 500 asylum seekers, CSU party members remain firm. “I think what Seehofer is doing is perfectly fine,” says Anton Sterr, a district council member. “It would be good for Waldkraiburg if refugee numbers would go down.”

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This is the front line of the battle facing the West today: between those espousing a more “open” society and those advocating that Europe must be “closed.” It could undermine not only the chancellor but the cohesion of Europe. In some ways both have never looked weaker.

But political pressure from Bavaria could also help Ms. Merkel find a solution nearly three years after Europe was rocked by the arrival of 1 million migrants. As European leaders head into a summit Thursday and Friday to try to strike a deal on migration, they are keenly aware of Merkel’s vulnerability, and could come to her side. The flare-up is also an uncomfortable reminder for mainstream parties of how fragile the political situation remains, even as the actual flow of migrants has ebbed. Above all it’s helped shape a new realpolitik around migration: that a middle ground that emphasizes both compassion and control is the winning narrative around Europe today.

‘A kind of a 2015 trauma’

One of the proposals floated ahead of the Brussels meeting, for example, is to build more refugee screening centers outside of Europe, dissuading illegal passage, which was once a fringe idea, says Leopold Traugott, a policy analyst with the Open Europe think tank. “Politicians are increasingly accepting that the approach of Europe has to be restrictive, or otherwise it won’t work,” he says. “People want to have the sense of control.”

“We have had, over the past two or three years, this constant debate about populism, the idea of the open and closed society,” says Angelos Chryssogelos, an expert on European politics at Chatham House, a think tank in London. “But I think the understanding among mainstream parties is that ultimately if the debate is framed in that way … that allows populists to polarize against a social liberal establishment.”

Nasser (l.) and Muhannad, asylum seekers from Syria, walk past a local farmer on their way to the grocery store on June 6, 2015, in Freyung, Germany. After passing through Eastern Europe, Muhannad and Nasser were caught by police on the German border where they were taken to an asylum center with fellow refugees and migrants.
Ann Hermes/Staff

The fight between the German ruling partners, whipped up by local Bavarian elections scheduled for the fall and exacerbated by the formation of a new anti-migrant government in Italy, is not the only one underway. Italy and France have spat again over closed borders, after Italy decided to reject rescue ships this month, while Austria has threatened to close its own frontier to the so-called “Balkan route” of migration. This has come to a head even as the pace of migration has slowed: UN figures show 44,370 have arrived via the Mediterranean so far this year.

“There’s still kind of a 2015 trauma within this society and a deep mistrust that politicians will be able to prevent [a repeat] in the future,” says Jana Puglierin, Europe expert at the German Council on Foreign Relations. She blames irresponsibility on the part of the CSU for seeking electoral gain against the far right in Bavaria. “They create an atmosphere as if nothing has changed” since 2015, she says. “The CSU portrays Germany as a kind of failed state ... This is so far from the truth.”

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This puts pressure on Merkel to compromise on the humanitarian spirit she showed at the peak of crisis in 2015, and it raises concerns that mainstream parties are chasing the anti-migrant vote. The idea to process refugees abroad finds widespread backing because it is a policy aimed at reducing flows, but it raises concerns about human rights and proper processes.

A rallying call

Yet the threat that the German coalition could fail, just over three months after taking office, has awakened allies to the urgency of a solution after three years of stalling and bickering. Bavaria's intransigence on the migration issue has, in fact, bolstered Merkel's negotiating position with some EU countries, says Josef Janning, head of the European Council on Foreign Relations Berlin office. EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker agreed to host a mini-summit over the weekend. French President Emmanuel Macron has supported her, too.

The timing is right while mainstream politicians are more united. Anti-migrant politicians might agree on keeping migrants out, but once they are in Europe they are “miles away,” says Ms. Puglierin. For example, Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is adamantly opposed to quotas to redistribute refugees; the new government in Italy is a leading advocate of sharing the burden around the bloc.

If a unanimous European solution proves elusive this week, Merkel has already suggested she will strike a deal with a small number of EU states – as France and Germany did at the outset of the Schengen agreement, which created open borders between EU members.

A recent Eurobarometer poll shows that immigration is the No. 1 concern about the 500-million citizen bloc, with 38 percent naming it as the most important challenge facing the EU.

Mr. Seehofer’s hard line on Bavaria, though controversial, is part of a longer-term shift in the debate. French President Macron has advocated a system that more quickly deports economic migrants to give space to those who meet refugee status. Merkel has been pursuing a similar course, even before the Bavarian ultimatum. “She has understood that a common policy of Europeans can only be a restrictive policy because nobody, not even the Germans, are ready to pursue an open door policy on migration,” Mr. Janning says.

While Waldkraiburg’s Sterr says he’d like to see refugee numbers go down, he is also calling for order. It would be “good,” too, he says, “if orderly procedures would be followed, if people whose asylum claims are rejected would be deported as quickly as possible, and if space could be made for those people who are actually being persecuted and actually need help.”

That rhetoric plays far better to voters than the sometimes empty talk on “European values” that frames the migration debate, says Mr. Chryssogelos.

“The migration issue is not just about migration but about the relationship between elites and people, institutions and voters,” he says. “And they know if they cannot really deliver some sense of control to the electorate, it is going to reinforce the sense of disconnect between elites and the people. That is actually what populists are tapping.”