Merkel's gov't hardens stance on asylum policy as voters lurch to right
Updated: Apr 2, 2019
by Philipp Requat & Anna Strumpel (Op Ed, Xinhua, 13.08.2018)
When more than one million asylum seekers arrived in Germany in 2015, the country’s initial reaction was summarized by its veteran chancellor in three words. “We can do it!” (Wir schaffen das), Merkel reiterated whenever questioned about the challenges that the influx would create.
Three years later, Merkel’s fourth governing cabinet has all but completed a U-turn on
what has since become known as the “open door policy” of September 2015. As
underscored by a recent compromise reached to resolve bitter infighting over asylum policy
between the CDU and its Christian Social Union (CSU) conservative sister party and
coalition partner, the federal government has now swerved decisively to the right on
Following the publication of his ambitiously-named “migration master plan” in June, interior
minister and CSU leader Horst Seehofer threatened to resign unless Merkel endorsed the
complete document or found equivalent solution on a European level within the course of
two weeks. Most controversially, Seehofer wanted to refuse asylum access to German
territory if they have formally entered the Schengen zone via another country.
The ultimatum imposed by Seehofer on the chancellor marked a historically
unprecedented show of cabinet disobedience in Germany, which threatened to unravel the
entire ruling grand coalition. At least initially, Merkel was critical of the “migration master
plan.” She warned of a potential domino effect in the European free travel area caused by its
unilateral border control provisions, as neighboring states rush to shutter their internal
Schengen borders in response.
Yet instead of sacking the rebellious minister, the chancellor rushed to a meeting in
Brussels informally dubbed the “summit to save Merkel”, where she managed to secure a
vague agreement from Germany’s European partners to toughen and expand their joint
asylum policies. Upon return to Berlin, she then struck a deal with Seehofer to resolve the
CDU-CSU spat by establishing “transit centers” on the German-Austrian borders, where
asylum seekers who are already registered in the EU will be detained before being
transferred on to the responsible member state.
The outcome raised eyebrows in European capitals, with many observers arguing that the
negotiated agreement was much closer to Seehofer’s “master plan” for a strict and
nationally-directed asylum regime than Merkel’s vision of European solidarity. The hardening
of Berlin’s stance on migration was also seen to have occurred with peculiar timing, in light
of official data that pointed to a steady decline of new asylum applications and related
pressures in Germany since 2015.
The latest step taken by the interior ministry towards the implementation of the “migration
master plan” is a case in point. The interior minister recently announced that the Spanish
government had offered to take back asylum seekers from Germany from who were already
registered in Spain. Responding to a query by the newspaper Handelsblatt, Seehofer’s own
ministry admitted, however, that not a single individual would have been affected by the
bilateral agreement during the past two months.
Madrid’s offer to help prevent so-called “secondary migration” of asylum seekers within the
Schengen free-travel area specifically applies to individuals who are intercepted at the
German-Austrian border. Although eight asylum seekers who were pre-registered in Spain
were registered in Germany during the past two months, none of them had entered the
country from Austria.
Given the geographic location of Spain in the far West of Europe, it is highly unlikely that
refugees and other irregular migrants will take a detour to Germany via its South-Eastern
neighbor Austria. The data was thus seen by critics of the deal and Seehofer’s politics more
generally as evidence that the CSU leader is unnecessarily stoking popular fears with anti-
According to the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF), the number of first-
time asylum applications in Germany has plummeted, from 722,370 applications in 2016 to
198,327 applications in 2017. The German Federal Criminal Police Office’s (BKA) further
reported that overall criminal offences declined by 9.6 percent from 2016 to 2017, contrary to
suggestions by some that the mass arrival of refugees in the country would unleash a
national crime wave.
Speaking to Xinhua, Kai Unzicker, Senior Project Manager at the Bertelsmann Foundation,
argued that as once predicted by Merkel, Germany had in fact coped well under the
pressure of the “refugee crisis.” “Cities and communities have achieved enormous
successes in collaboration with an active and open civil society”, Unzicker said.
The Bertelsmann researcher readily admitted that “housing and catering for such a large
amount of people on such notice was logistically and financially challenging.” Nevertheless,
the situation “relaxed again” quickly as of 2016, when the number of new arrivals began to
As a consequence, Unzicker argued that the federal government’s harsher rhetoric on
asylum owed more to psychological and political factors than any significant deterioration in
citizens’ quality of life. “Racist and xenophobic appearances and stances have poisoned the
public debate in Germany. Even though crime and unemployment rates are at all-time lows,
fear and insecurity are being promoted”, he warned.
A visible sign of changing popular attitudes was found in a poll in July, in which the anti-
immigrant “Alternative for Germany” overtook the German Social Democrats (SPD) as the
country’s second largest party. In turn, the SPD publicly attacked the CSU for damaging the
reputation of the government by attempting to “drag it to the right-wing spectrum of politics.”
That the CSU is attempting to do so may reflect the party’s growing desperation ahead of
looming regional elections in its Bavarian homestead. Polls suggest that the CSU is set to
lose its long-standing legislative majority in the state, as the AfD attracts growing numbers of
voters who feel disenfranchised by what they view as an aloof political elite.
In spite of the AfD’s evident momentum, Robert Vehrkamp, Senior Advisor at the
Bertelsmann Foundation, argued that CDU and CSU would both benefit politically from a
consensus on abstaining from copying the language and rhetoric of right-wing populists.
“Anyone speaking about ‘asylum-tourism’ is already mimicking the AfD”, he said.
Vehrkamp cautioned that centrist parties risked legitimizing populist adversaries if they
simply copied their strategies.
So far, the CSU’s efforts to ward off a challenge from the AfD do appear to have born little
fruit. In an opinion survey published by Deutsche Welle shortly after the CDU and CSU
reached their compromise on asylum, Seehofer’s approval rating plummeted by 16 percent
to 27 percent.
By contrast, Merkel only witnessed a slight monthly drop in her reading to 48 percent
(minus two percentage points). When it comes to the chancellor, it seems, the German
electorate is still forgiving of the ideological pragmatism which she has repeatedly
demonstrated during twelve-year rule.