World News

Bavarian leader calls for end to 'welcome culture' for refugees

MUNICH (Reuters) - A prominent ally of Chancellor Angela Merkel stepped up his criticism of her refugee policy on Saturday, demanding an end to the “Willkommenskultur” that has encouraged record numbers of migrants to seek asylum in Germany.

Slideshow ( 3 images )

A day after criticising Merkel -- as she stood uncomfortably beside him on stage -- for refusing to put a cap on the number of refugees entering Germany, Bavarian leader Horst Seehofer called for “a culture of reason, not a culture of welcome.”

“No one can be forced to shoulder more than they can carry,” Seehofer said at a congress of his Christian Social Union (CSU) in Munich, where he was later re-elected as party chairman.

The CSU is the sister party of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and is a member of her coalition government in Berlin, but Seehofer has emerged as her most high-profile domestic critic in recent months.

Thousands of migrants are entering Germany every day, the vast majority flowing into Bavaria over the Austrian border, and roughly a million are expected to arrive this year alone.

Merkel agreed in September to suspend EU asylum rules and allow thousands of migrants camped out in precarious conditions in Hungary through to Germany.

Scenes of German volunteers applauding refugees and offering them food as they descended from trains in Munich station sparked the feel-good term “Willkommenskultur” (“welcome culture”).

But the mood has since shifted, with critics saying Germany’s welcome has only encouraged more to risk the harrowing journey from war-torn countries such as Syria and Iraq.

Merkel, who marks her 10-year anniversary in office on Sunday, has rebuffed calls from the CSU and members of her own party to impose a formal cap on the number of refugees Germany will accept, saying it would be impossible to enforce.

The scene on the stage in Munich on Friday underscored how politically vulnerable she has become in recent months as the tide of refugees continues, straining the resources of local communities. A poll last week showed that 60 percent of Germans are unhappy with Merkel’s refugee policies.

“Seehofer humiliates Merkel,” read a headline in top-selling daily Bild. “Horst Seehofer treated the chancellor like a school girl at the CSU congress,” the paper’s deputy editor wrote in an editorial.

In what some may interpret as another slap at Merkel, Seehofer also announced plans to travel to Moscow soon to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The attacks in Paris last week that killed 129 people have created a sense in some Western capitals that cooperation with Moscow in fighting militants should be prioritised and differences over Ukraine given less importance.

But Merkel is among those who are reluctant to discuss any easing of sanctions against Russia so long as the so-called Minsk peace deal for Ukraine has not been implemented in full.

Writing by Noah Barkin; Editing by Helen Popper