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Posts tagged ‘United Land of Germany’

Refugee intake at the heart of Germany’s govt formation


BERLIN – Two weeks after winning elections with a reduced majority, Chancellor Angela Merkel agreed on Sunday to limit Germany’s refugee intake in a bid to unite her conservative camp ahead of tough coalition talks to form a new government.

Merkel’s team huddled with her Bavarian CSU allies led by Horst Seehofer, who has angrily blamed her decision to allow in over one million asylum seekers since 2015 for the rise of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party.

After 10 hours of closed-door talks, Merkel’s CDU and the CSU agreed they would aim to cap refugees coming to Europe’s top economy at 200,000 a year, according to a draft paper — a formulation close to a long-time Seehofer demand that Merkel had repeatedly rejected.

The goal of the meeting was to settle bitter squabbles so the estranged conservative sister parties can again present a united front in upcoming coalition talks with two smaller parties — the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP) and the left-leaning and ecologist Greens.

The CSU’s beleaguered Seehofer — who after a vote drubbing faces internal challengers, and state elections next year — had vowed to close his party’s exposed “right flank” and win back AfD voters, crucially by taking a harder line on refugees and immigration.

In an opening salvo Sunday, the CSU had published a list of demands, including capping refugee numbers, a commitment to a “healthy patriotism” and an acknowledgement that “conservatism is sexy again”.

“We must fight the AfD head-on — and fight to get their voters back,” said its ten-point list published in mass-circulation Bild am Sonntag.

– ‘Fundamental compromise’ –

Merkel had long rejected Seehofer’s signature demand for an iron-cast “upper limit” of 200,000 refugees a year — but late Sunday a deal was shaping up that some commentators dubbed an “upper limit light”.

After hours of talks to square the circle of their competing positions, “a fundamental compromise has been reached”, an alliance source said.

Later, as the marathon talks ended, a party spokesman announced that Merkel and Seehofer would explain the agreement in a joint press conference at 1000 GMT Monday.

The draft deal includes a target of limiting the refugee intake at 200,000 a year, but with caveats. It also says that asylum seekers will not be turned back before their cases are assessed, in line with the German constitution.

The 200,000-figure refers to controlled entries, such as through family reunions, and refugees accepted at the EU level or under a deal between the bloc and Turkey.

If there were a repeat of the chaotic mass migration like that from war-torn Syria and other conflict zones seen in 2015, the government would reassess the issue and consult parliament on a new target figure, according to the draft proposal.

Both CDU and CSU say migrant flows must be reduced through fighting traffickers and better guarding the EU’s outside borders.

And the parties also plan a broader immigration law aimed at attracting qualified migrants with labor skills sought by German industry — matching a core demand of the FDP.

They also want to renew a push to declare three North African nations “safe countries of origin”, raising the bar for asylum claims from there — a demand so far blocked by the Greens, who point to human rights abuses in those countries.

– Odd bedfellows –

The emergence of the anti-immigration AfD, which scored 12.6 percent to enter the opposition benches, has stunned Germany by breaking a long-standing taboo on hard-right parties sitting in the Bundestag.

Its success came at the expense of all the mainstream parties, making it harder for Merkel to form a working majority.

Her only chance now, if she wants to avoid fresh elections that could further boost the AfD, is an alliance with two other parties that make for odd bedfellows, the FDP and Greens.

Such a power pact — dubbed a “Jamaica coalition” because the three party colors match those of the Caribbean nation’s flag — would be a first at the federal level in Germany.

Tough talks lie ahead as the parties differ on refugees, EU policy and the Greens’ core demands, including phasing out coal plants and fossil fuel vehicles.

The Greens’ co-leader Cem Ozdemir, voicing some impatience with the divided conservatives, warned that they “must not block the formation of a government for weeks”.

Source: Middle East Online.



Prominent German nationalist figure Petry to leave party

September 26, 2017

BERLIN (AP) — One of the most prominent figures in the nationalist Alternative for Germany said Tuesday she plans to leave the party, even as other lawmakers from the anti-migrant party held their first meeting after a strong showing at the polls.

The announcement from Frauke Petry, the party’s co-chairwoman since 2015, came after Alternative for Germany, or AfD, won 12.6 percent of the vote in Sunday’s election to secure seats in the national parliament for the first time.

Petry told reporters Tuesday in the eastern city of Dresden she would leave the party “in the coming days.” She said it was “the logical consequence of what has happened in recent months in our party.”

She played a key role in moving AfD’s focus from opposing eurozone bailouts to migration when she took over in 2015, but has been increasingly sidelined in recent months. Petry has said she aimed to make the AfD ready for government in 2021, and urged her party earlier this year to exclude members who expressed extremist views.

“We think this country urgently needs political change, but we no longer consider our party in a position to take it in hand” after months of in-fighting, she said Tuesday. “Of course I want to continue pushing for political change in 2021 as an individual lawmaker, and perhaps later in a different configuration that it’s far too early to speak about,” she added.

Petry had already announced Monday that she wouldn’t join the party’s parliamentary group, but left her future open. Other leaders then urged her to leave the party altogether. Her husband, Marcus Pretzell, the party leader in the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia and a regional lawmaker there, told The Associated Press that he is also leaving AfD.

AfD won 94 of the 709 seats in the new German parliament, including Petry’s. It wasn’t immediately clear whether any other federal lawmakers would follow her departure. Fellow AfD members appeared relatively unconcerned by the news as they gathered in Berlin.

Sunday’s election left Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative bloc weakened but still easily the biggest group in parliament. Merkel now faces a complicated task in forming a coalition — most likely with the pro-business Free Democrats and the traditionally left-leaning Greens.

Her partners in the outgoing government, the center-left Social Democrats, say they will go into opposition after they lost substantial support. Before she can haggle with other parties, Merkel will have to smooth over tensions with the Christian Social Union, the Bavaria-only sister to her own conservative Christian Democratic Union.

The CSU leader, Bavarian governor Horst Seehofer, feuded with Merkel over the 2015-16 migrant influx and demanded a fixed annual limit on the number of asylum-seekers Germany accepts. The pair buried their differences in recent months, but Seehofer has insisted since election night that the conservatives need to close an “open flank” to their right.

“We must make clear to the public we have understood (that) just carrying on wouldn’t be good,” Seehofer said, adding that people “expect policies that react to this election result.” Merkel said Monday she “can’t see what we should do differently.” But Seehofer said after meeting her Tuesday he has “great confidence” that they will close ranks.

Frank Jordans in Berlin contributed to this report.

Germany’s Merkel faces tricky task to build government

September 25, 2017

BERLIN (AP) — German Chancellor Angela Merkel was embarking Monday on a complicated quest to form a new government for Europe’s biggest economy and find answers to the rise of a nationalist, anti-migrant party.

Sunday’s election left Merkel’s conservative Union bloc weakened after a campaign that focused squarely on Germany’s leader of the past 12 years. However, the result leaves no other party able to lead a new government, and Merkel herself lacks any obvious internal challenger.

The center-left Social Democrats — Merkel’s partners since 2013 in a “grand coalition” of Germany’s two traditionally dominant parties — vowed to go into opposition after a heavy defeat. Caucus leader Thomas Oppermann doubled down on that pledge Monday, saying that “we will not conduct coalition talks, because voters have decided that the Social Democrats’ place is in opposition.”

“All of us, all the parties have the responsibility of giving this country a stable government,” Peter Tauber, the general secretary of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, told ZDF television. “And a coalition can only be successful if it is able to make compromises.”

Germany has no tradition of minority governments, and Merkel has already made clear she doesn’t want to try that option — which would in any case be a tall order, as her bloc has only 246 of the new parliament’s 709 seats.

That means the only politically plausible option is a three-way coalition with the pro-business Free Democrats and the traditionally left-leaning Greens. The combination, called a “Jamaica” coalition because the parties’ colors match those of the Caribbean nation’s flag, hasn’t been tried in a national government.

Merkel faces lengthy talks to secure an alliance with parties that have a tradition of mutual suspicion as well as differences on issues including migration, European financial policy and the auto industry’s future.

At the same time, she faces pressure from conservative allies for an effective response to the third-place finish of the nationalist Alternative for Germany, or AfD, which entered parliament for the first time after a campaign that centered on harsh criticism of Merkel and her 2015 decision to allow in large numbers of migrants.

AfD took voters from Merkel’s bloc and to a lesser extent from the Social Democrats, while also mobilizing large numbers of people who didn’t previously vote. “Of course I want to win back everyone who voted for AfD and previously voted for us,” Tauber said. “To do that, we have to confront AfD clearly and show that we have the better answers.”

AfD won 94 seats in the new parliament — but long-standing splits inside the party emerged on Monday, as one of its most prominent figures announced that, “after long reflection,” she wouldn’t join the AfD caucus, and walked out of a news conference with fellow leaders.

Party co-chairwoman Frauke Petry has been sidelined by other leaders over recent months after urging her party to exclude members who express extremist views, with the aim of attracting moderate voters.

Petry said she wants to make the party ready for government in 2021, while others have made clear their priority is no-holds-barred opposition. “We should be open about there being differences of substance in AfD,” Petry said. “An anarchic party … can be successful in opposition, but it cannot make voters a credible offer for government.”

She left without taking questions. Other leaders continued calmly with their news conference. “I’d like to apologize in the name of my party,” co-chairman Joerg Meuthen said. “This wasn’t discussed with us.”

Merkel bids for fourth term as Germans head to the polls

September 24, 2017

BERLIN (AP) — Chancellor Angela Merkel cast her vote Sunday in Berlin, confident of a fourth term in office with her conservative bloc enjoying a wide lead in the final polls, while the nationalist, anti-migrant Alternative for Germany party seemed poised to win seats in parliament for the first time.

Merkel campaigned on her record as chancellor for 12 years, emphasizing the country’s record-low unemployment, strong economic growth, balanced budget and growing international importance. That’s helped keep her conservative bloc well atop the polls ahead of the center-left Social Democrats of challenger Martin Schulz.

In Berlin, which also hosted its annual marathon Sunday, many streets were blocked and some voters had to cross the marathon route as runners zigzagged their way through the German capital. A festive mood emerged, with bands playing on street corners and bystanders cheering and applauding.

Merkel arrived in the early afternoon to vote with her husband Joachim Sauer, whose umbrella shielded them from the cold drizzle. Merkel nodded and smiled at reporters but made no comments. Schulz voted with his wife Inge in his hometown of Wuerselen in western Germany.

Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union and its sister party, the Bavaria-only Christian Social Union, have governed the country for the last four years with the Social Democrats in a so-called “grand coalition.” Most forecasts suggest that coalition will win another majority on Sunday, but different coalition government combinations could be possible.

The latest polls had Merkel’s conservative bloc at 34 to 37 percent support, the center-left Social Democrats with 21 to 22 percent and the anti-migrant Alternative for Germany, or AfD, with 10 to 13 percent support, enough to get into parliament.

If that happens, it would make AfD the farthest right-wing party in parliament for nearly six decades. In a tweet, the Social Democrats urged people to get out and vote against the AfD, saying “it’s a right-wing extremist party that doesn’t belong in parliament.”

AfD’s Frauke Petry, a party chairwoman, fired back with her own tweet: “Live with it comrades, the trend to the left is over today.” In addition to AfD, the Greens, the pro-business Free Democratic Party and the Left Party were all poised to enter parliament with poll numbers between 8 and 11 percent support.

Many of Germany’s 61.5 million voters had remained undecided until the very last moment. That included Bernhard Sommerfeld, a 62-year-old bookseller. “I was really undecided,” said Sommerfeld, who declined to say who he voted for in Berlin. “It was very difficult.”

Midway through the day, Germany’s federal election authority said national voter turnout was slightly down compared to the last election in 2013. As of 2 p.m. Sunday, 41.1 percent of eligible voters had cast their ballots, the Federal Returning Officer said. That compared to 41.4 percent cast by that time in 2013, in an election where final turnout ended up at 71.5 percent.

Absentee ballots are now considered in the 2 p.m. report, however, and they’re expected to be a record number of them this year. German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier appealed to his fellow citizens to vote, saying “these elections are also about the future of democracy and the future of Europe.”

Countries across Europe have seen a rise of anti-migrant and populist parties in recent elections and several German pollsters have forecast that AfD may come in as the country’s third-strongest party.

The AfD’s campaign has been dominated by hostile slogans against the more than 1 million, mostly Muslim migrants who arrived in Germany in the last two years. They’re aiming to grab votes from other parties, including Merkel’s conservatives.

David Rising and Kerstin Sopke contributed reporting from Berlin.

In final push, Merkel seeks to reach undecided German voters

September 23, 2017

BERLIN (AP) — German Chancellor Angela Merkel urged her supporters to keep up the momentum in the final hours before Sunday’s national election, urging a last push to try to sway undecided voters. Merkel is seeking a fourth term in office and her conservative bloc of the Christian Democratic Party and Bavarian-only Christian Social union has a healthy lead in the polls. Surveys in the last week show it leading with between 34 to 37 percent support, followed by the Social Democrats with 21 to 22 percent.

Still, the support has been gradually eroding over the past week. Merkel told supporters in Berlin on Saturday that they needed to keep up their efforts to sway undecided voters, saying “many make their decision in the final hours.”

After handing out coffee and chatting with the campaign workers in Berlin, Merkel headed north to her own riding, walking through the streets of the city of Stralsund shaking hands, posing for photos and signing autographs.

She also campaigned in the northern city of Greifswald and planned a stop as well on the island of Ruegen in the Baltic. Her main challenger, Social Democrat Martin Schulz, was in western Germany at a rally in the city of Aachen.

At a rally Friday night in Berlin, Schulz urged Germans not to vote for the anti-migrant Alternative for Germany party, known by its German initials AfD, which appears assured of gaining seats in the national parliament for the first time. The nationalist party has 10 to 13 percent support in the polls.

Calling the AfD a “party of agitators” and “the enemies,” Schulz said his Social Democrats were the best option to fight them. “We will defend democracy in Germany,” he said. In addition to the AfD, the Greens, the Free Democratic Party and the Left Party were all poised to enter parliament with poll numbers between 8 and 11 percent.

With the numbers so close, several different coalition government combinations could be possible. Merkel on Friday night told supporters in Munich not to be complacent with her bloc’s lead. “We don’t have a single vote to give away,” she said. “We can’t use any experiments — we need stability and security.”

After humdrum German campaign, Merkel hopes for fourth term

September 22, 2017

BERLIN (AP) — Chancellor Angela Merkel appears all but certain to win a fourth term when Germans vote Sunday after a humdrum campaign produced few divisive issues but saw smaller parties gain support — including the nationalist, anti-migration Alternative for Germany, which is set to become the most right-wing party in parliament for 60 years.

Merkel, already chancellor for 12 years, has run a low-key campaign emphasizing the country’s sinking unemployment, strong economic growth, balanced budget and overall stability in a volatile world. Pre-election polls give her conservative Union bloc a lead of 13 to 17 points over the center-left Social Democrats of her challenger, Martin Schulz. The two are traditional rivals but have governed together in a “grand coalition” of the biggest parties for the past four years.

Schulz returned to German politics in January after years as the European Parliament’s president. He has struggled to gain traction with a campaign that centered on righting perceived economic injustices for Germany’s have-nots. It’s also been difficult for him to carve out clear differences with the conservatives.

Merkel offered Germans “a combination of the experience of recent years, in which we have achieved plenty, and curiosity for the new” during the pair’s only head-to-head debate of the campaign. Merkel is pledging to get from Germany’s current 5.7 percent unemployment rate — down from 11 percent when she took office in 2005 — to “full employment” by 2025. She pledges limited tax cuts and to keep Germany’s borrowing at zero.

And she offers a steady hand internationally, with long experience of European Union negotiating marathons, tough talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and now of engaging cautiously with President Donald Trump.

Polls suggest that Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union and their Bavaria-only allies, the Christian Social Union, will come in a few points short of the 41.5 percent support they had in 2013 — Merkel’s best result yet. They put Schulz’s Social Democrats around or below the 23 percent they won in their worst showing yet in post-World War II Germany, in 2009.

Hans Kundnani, an expert at the German Marshall Fund think-tank, said it’s a “foregone conclusion” that Merkel will be the next chancellor. The difficult part may be forming a new government. Merkel can hope for a narrow majority for a center-right coalition with the pro-business Free Democrats, with whom she ran Germany from 2009 to 2013, or the traditionally left-leaning Greens.

More likely is a result that leaves her either seeking an untried coalition with both those parties, or another “grand coalition” with the Social Democrats. The latter party has pledged to ballot its membership on any coalition deal, which could be tricky if it performs very badly.

A government with the Free Democrats aboard might take a tougher stance on efforts to reform the eurozone and bail out strugglers. The Greens want a faster transition away from gas and diesel cars and a wealth tax on the rich — neither of which the conservatives are likely to swallow.

The junior partners, whoever they are, will have “limited influence over the overall direction of policy,” Kundnani wrote in an analysis. He added that “in so far as differences exist between the four parties that could become part of the government, they are a matter of details and nuances.”

Polls show four parties competing for third place, with support between 7 and 12 percent: the Free Democrats, who look set to return to parliament after a four-year absence; the Greens, the Left Party and Alternative for Germany, or AfD.

AfD has swung right since it narrowly missed entering parliament in 2013. It has been helped by shrill opposition to Merkel’s decision to allow in large numbers of refugees and other migrants in 2015.

Many of Merkel’s campaign appearances have been marked by loud heckling from pro-nationalist demonstrators. “This is a kind of intolerance that is very, very difficult,” Merkel said recently. It remains to be seen just how strong AfD’s appeal to protest voters dissatisfied with other parties is. If there’s another “grand coalition,” a third-place finish would make it the opposition leader in the next parliament — a prospect many in Germany view with distaste.

Merkel has regained ground over the past year after gradually shifting to a more restrictive stance on migrants, stressing the need to deport those who have no right to stay and to prevent so-called “economic migrants” from Africa and the Balkans from coming.

But she has kept her focus firmly on the center ground, long a secret of her success. Over the years, she has dropped military conscription, accelerated Germany’s exit from nuclear power, embraced the Social Democrats’ demand for a national minimum wage and, in June, cleared the way for parliament to legalize same-sex marriage. That deprived liberal rivals of one awkward issue before campaigning even began.

Schulz says he still hopes to win over undecided voters, arguing that Merkel has no vision for the future. “There is someone who wants to administer the past. She is called Angela Merkel,” he said recently. “And there is someone who wants to shape the future. He is called Martin Schulz.”

Election may reflect Germany’s management of migrant influx

September 20, 2017

COLOGNE, Germany (AP) — German Chancellor Angela Merkel adopted a mantra when citizens questioned her decision to open the country to refugees fleeing wars: “We’ll manage.” She kept repeating it as the lines at immigration offices circled city blocks, school gyms turned into temporary housing and the questions devolved into angry criticism.

But as Merkel campaigns for a fourth term, the German obsession with “Ordnung”— order — looks to have been assuaged. Most of the 890,000 asylum-seekers who entered Germany two years ago are in language and job training courses. Students are again playing sports in the gyms. Rejected asylum applicants are being deported.

A national election on Sunday could show how well voters think Merkel’s government managed the refugee influx. For the chancellor and her Christian Democrats, the signs are promising. The far-right Alternative for Germany party has struggled to make immigration a major election issue. While the party is expected to win seats in parliament for the first time, the support it drew when thousands of newcomers were arriving daily has fallen along with the number of migrants trying to enter the country.

At the same time, Merkel has changed her rhetoric. Along with working to streamline and improve services for new arrivals, she now emphasizes that migrants not deserving of asylum will be sent home and that other European nations need to share the work of assisting eligible refugees.

“Merkel’s government started a highly risky maneuver with its policy of the absolute opening of the borders,” University of Heidelberg political scientist Manfred Schmidt said. “It led to a loss of control which was interpreted as a big, big problem by the people. However, the politicians realized themselves that they had a huge problem and started facing the issues.”

German opinion has been divided since large numbers of job-seeking migrants from economically depressed countries and refugees from Middle East nations wracked by civil wars and extremist groups poured into Europe in 2015.

Tens of thousands of Germans pitched in to help the refugees, bringing food and water to train stations, waving welcome signs and volunteering at shelters. Tens of thousands more took to the streets in the nationalist Pegida demonstrations, a German acronym for “Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West.”

The friction between the two sides came to a head in October 2015 in Cologne, Germany’s fourth-largest city. Henriette Reker, a mayoral candidate who oversaw municipal services for the refugees who sometimes arrived at a rate of 500 per week, was stabbed and nearly killed by a far-right extremist at a campaign event.

Reker, an independent who went on to win the election while still in a coma, concedes Germany was not prepared to take in so many desperate foreigners, yet defends Merkel’s decision to welcome refugees.

“The chancellor did the only right thing: she didn’t close the borders for purely humanitarian reasons,” Reker, 60, a career civil servant, said in an interview. “If she had closed it, and this is really not being mentioned enough, than hundreds of thousands of people would have languished.”

Two months after Reker’s stabbing, Cologne again became a flash point in the immigration debate. Hundreds of women reported being groped and sexually assaulted by migrants during the city’s New Year’s Eve celebration, causing attitudes toward young men from the Middle East and Africa in particular to harden into hostility.

The New Year’s Eve assaults marked a low point in Merkel’s popularity, they also served as a catalyst for reforms that seem to have brought the country back on track The German parliament quickly passed a number of bills making it easier for victims of sex crimes to file complaints, enforcing the deportation of criminal foreigners and toughening asylum standards.

Merkel also benefited from an EU deal with Turkey to prevent migrants from setting out for Europe. In addition, the German government is working to slow the flow of migrants from Africa by initiating partnerships to address the conditions that cause people to leave their homelands.

Today in Cologne, most people say that while they haven’t forgotten the nearly 1 million new arrivals, their initial concerns that Germany would be overwhelmed have been allayed now that the country is running smoothly.

Not everyone was convinced, however. “I think not everything is under control as planned,” Moritz Bertram, 20, who is from a small village northeast of Cologne, said. “Everything is overcrowded, also for the people who, of course, need the help, but don’t get it because it’s all too much.”

Reker conceded that getting people through the asylum process, out of shelters and into more permanent housing has been slow going and more needs to be done, but said progress has been steady. Before school started in Cologne this fall, the city was able to return to local schools the last final gyms that had been serving as temporary refugee shelters.

“We’ve fulfilled all the basic requirements,” Reker said. “Now, it’s all about getting these people really integrated into our society.”

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