Τρίτη, 20 Σεπτεμβρίου 2016

Merkel admits she would turn back the clock on refugee policy


19/9/2016

By Stefan Wagstyl

Chancellor moves to win back voters from rightwing AfD after election drubbing in Berlin

Angela Merkel on Monday admitted she would turn back the clock, if she could, on her refugee policy after her Christian Democrat party suffered a historic defeat in the Berlin regional elections.

As she made a rare public expression of regret over her most contentious policy, the chancellor abandoned the calm self-confidence she has radiated since extending a fateful welcome last summer to thousands of mainly Middle Eastern refugees.

“If I could, I would rewind time by many, many years so that I could better prepare myself and the whole government and all those in positions of responsibility for the situation that caught us unprepared in the late summer of 2015,” Ms Merkel said.

The chancellor also distanced herself from her phrase — “Wir schaffen das — we can do it” — which captured Germans’ belief last summer in their capacity to integrate the newly arrived refugees. She said it had become “a simple slogan, almost an empty formula” that underestimated the scale of the integration challenge.

The admission was aimed at winning back voters who have flocked to the rightwing, populist Alternative for Germany party, which has made big inroads this year by criticising Ms Merkel’s open-door approach to refugees. She was also responding to the growing ranks of conservative critics in her ruling CDU/CSU bloc, who have urged her to complement recent moves to tighten refugee policy with a more self-critical tone.

“The government has been on the right track with its policies for some time now. But our communication must be better,” said one CDU MP. “The chancellor seems now to have accepted this.”

After months of resisting her critics, Ms Merkel was forced to change tack after the AfD grabbed 14.2 per cent of the vote in Sunday’s regional election. It took support from the conservative CDU, which fell to its lowest level in the capital, and from the Social Democrats, Ms Merkel’s coalition partner.

It was the latest in a string of regional election successes that now leave the AfD well placed to become the first rightwing party in the German parliament since the second world war in next year’s Bundestag election. Earlier this month, the party stunned the CDU by beating it into third place in rural Mecklenburg Vorpommern, Ms Merkel’s home turf.

At a post-election press conference on Monday, Ms Merkel denied that it had been a mistake to offer such a warm welcome to refugees — a gesture that eventually helped attract more than 1m migrants to the country. She argued that the decision had been “absolutely right” but that it had come after years of ineffective responses to the continent’s migration challenges, with Germany and the EU leaving the Mediterranean countries to shoulder the burden.

As a result, Germany “for a long time had insufficient control [of its borders]”, she said. “We have learnt from history. Nobody, including me, wants a repeat of this situation.”

While some of her comments were nuanced — notably, her defence of keeping the country’s borders open last year — the message was widely accepted as a mea culpa in Germany. “The chancellor confesses to mistakes in refugee policy,” said Bild, the top-selling newspaper in an online headline. “Merkel reaches her hand out to her critics,” said Spiegel, the news magazine.

Andreas Busch, politics professor at Göttingen University, said: “She has changed her language, that’s very wise.”

Ms Merkel now has some breathing space before the next three regional elections in the spring, which will be a critical test before the autumn Bundestag vote. Still, she is under pressure to announce she will stand for the chancellorship for a fourth time, despite the discontent generated by her refugee policies. Ms Merkel is expected to declare her hand by the CDU’s annual conference in December.

Some CDU sceptics would like her replaced but have so far struggled to put forward an alternative. One of the more frequently mentioned options is Wolfgang Schäuble, the finance minister who is one of Europe’s most powerful politicians. But at 74 he is considered too old to be more than a stopgap measure.

The hawkish finance minister has backed Ms Merkel over refugees while subtly signalling support for tougher policies. He said in a television interview last week: “She cannot only take people’s concerns seriously but she must also find good answers.”

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