Germany’s asylum debate: What’s ahead for the coalition and for refugees?

Should Germany reject refugees at the border and send them back to other European countries, or should they work with the European Union to find a collective solution? The disagreement around this question has been going on for some weeks now, possibly endangering the continuity of the German CDU/CSU/SPD government coalition.

The ongoing argument between German chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU) and Horst Seehofer, interior minister and leader of the CDU’s Bavarian sister party CSU, is just another peak in the European debate on the refugees at the moment. And just as in Germany, the “asylum debate” is boiling in many other countries.

The Dublin regulation: Legally rejecting refugees

The Dublin regulation determines which European country is responsible for examining asylum applications from refugees coming into the EU. It says that refugees have to seek asylum in the country where they first arrive. That would mean most of those currently coming in would have to seek asylum in Italy, Greece or Spain, where they arrive by boat.

Countries like Germany or Poland that do not have a Mediterranean coast are not obligated to take in asylum applications from refugees who had already been to another European country – whether living there or just travelling through. Hence, most of the refugees who arrive in Germany can be rejected at the border, and sent back to the country where they first arrived.

Bavaria wants to send back refugees

Rejecting the refugees at the border is exactly what interior minister Seehofer and his party CSU are aiming for.

In the southeastern German state of Bavaria, there will be elections in October. The CSU has been in power since the end of the Second World War, sometimes constituting the regional government alone, and sometimes as part of a coalition. Markus Söder has been the minister president since 2018, and his predecessor was Seehofer who is now the head of the party.

In the current election campaign, Söder and Seehofer want to please their voters by introducing new policies like regulations on care and family allowances, or by lowering the numbers of asylum seekers crossing the border to Germany – and especially to Bavaria.

Merkel is pleading for a “European solution”

Chancellor Merkel disagrees with Seehofer and the CSU. She is aiming for a “European solution”: At first, she tried to get the EU to spread refugees to all European countries, preventing countries like Italy from being overwhelmed with the arrival of many thousands.

The idea was to hold all European countries accountable by sending a proportional number of refugees to all places, providing them with help and new homes there. However, many countries (such as  Hungary and the Czech Republic, for example) did and do not want to take in any refugees.

Another suggestion being discussed is to install “control centres” for refugees outside of Europe, for example at the southern Libyan border. There, refugees can apply for asylum in European countries before they begin the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean Sea. However, Libya (in this case) has so far declined the installation of control centres on its soil.

Merkel’s plan B: Bilateral and multilateral agreements

After many failed attempts at bargaining to resolve the refugee conflict, Merkel is now taking a different approach: If there won’t be a European solution soon, she wants to arrange multilateral and bilateral treaties with selected countries that will bind them to take back refugees that had been in those respective countries before travelling to Germany.

This means that Germany would not have to examine asylum applications from refugees coming in, for example, from Austria. Instead, Merkel wants to return these refugees to the countries of transit. The “country of transit” is the country where an asylum seeker was first registered by border officials.

The consequences – for Germany and Europe

The possibility of a collapse of the European asylum cooperation makes this debate a very delicate one. If Germany single-handedly decides to reject refugees at the border, there is a risk that Italy will leave the Dublin regulation and stop registering refugees when they arrive in the country. “In the end, we would have more refugees in Germany than now,” said Armin Laschet, the minister president of the German region Nordrhein-Westfalen in an interview.

Within Germany, the argument between Merkel and Seehofer brought up a whole different discussion: Can the CDU and CSU agree on a refugee policy, or will the negotiations eventually fail? And if they do fail, will there still be a possibility for the current coalition to work together and remain in power? The two parties are traditionally partners and constitute the government together with the SPD — who, of course, will also have to approve any possible agreement.

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