BERLIN (Reuters) - German Chancellor Angela Merkel backed her interior minister on Monday in a row over asylum seekers, seeking to heal divisions within her coalition on how to handle the refugee crisis.
The government was forced to clarify on Friday that its policy for refugees from Syria remained unchanged after Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere said Germany would in the future grant some Syrians limited asylum without the right to family reunions, apparently bucking the official coalition line.
Merkel spokesman Steffen Seibert told a regular news conference on Monday that de Maiziere, long regarded as a close Merkel ally, retained the chancellor’s confidence. “Of course he does,” Seibert said.
Some among the left-leaning Social Democrats (SPD), who are junior partners in Merkel’s ruling coalition, have criticized de Maiziere’s remarks, bringing to the surface divisions within her Christian Democratic Union (CDU).
In a challenge to Merkel’s authority, conservative politicians, including Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, backed de Maiziere on the need for measures to stem the flow.
Schaeuble’s intervention was particularly significant. The 73-year-old veteran politician solidified his cult status in the conservative wing of Merkel’s party with his tough stance on the Greek crisis.
“We have around 7 billion people in the world. If they all wanted to decide to come to Europe, Europe would have to have the right to say ‘No thank you’,” Schaeuble said during a school visit in Berlin.
Horst Seehofer, leader of the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU), sister party to Merkel’s CDU, was more blunt.
“Thomas de Maiziere is right,” Seehofer told the Sueddeutsche Zeitung newspaper. “We have to act according to the law, and examine the refugee status of each and every Syrian.”
This amounts to a call on Merkel to reverse her decision in August to automatically welcome all Syrians into Germany, regardless of which European Union country they had first entered.
German media and politicians have criticized de Maiziere as acting too slowly, notably to appoint more civil servants to handle applications from hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers. A spokesman, asked whether de Maiziere was still loyal to Merkel, told Monday’s government news conference the minister “is loyal to the whole federal cabinet.”
In Brussels, de Maiziere said the ruling coalition parties should meet to discuss the issue of reuniting refugee families.
The CDU’s executive committee urged the SPD to back its plans to cancel family reunion rights for some Syrian refugees.
The SPD has rejected that proposal, saying it was not a part of a coalition deal last week to build registration centers for asylum seekers to speed up deportations of those whose applications are rejected.
“What I find difficult is that we have made clear agreements and shortly after we’ve agreed on something, there is a new proposal,” SPD leader Sigmar Gabriel told German television on Sunday, sounding frustrated.
CDU deputy leader Julia Kloeckner said the Social Democrats “must realize that the current figures do not allow the continuation of the family reunion policy.”
But the mass-selling Bild daily asked: “How much longer can de Maiziere hold on (to his job)?”
It suggested that Peter Altmaier, one of Merkel’s most trusted allies, whom she appointed last month to oversee the government’s handling of the refugee crisis in a blow to de Maiziere, was the best option to bring order to the coalition.
Additional reporting by: Matthias Sobolewski, and Tom Koerkemeier; Writing by Joseph Nasr; Editing by Paul Carrel/Ruth Pitchford