July 4, 2018 / 9:56 AM / a month ago

Merkel vows to soldier on despite bruising migration dispute

BERLIN (Reuters) - Germany’s right-left coalition government will serve its full four-year term despite a bitter dispute over immigration policy, Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Wednesday, downplaying fears of instability in Europe’s largest economy.

FILE PHOTO: German Chancellor Angela Merkel gives a statement after a meeting with Christian Social Union (CSU) Interior Minister Horst Seehofer at the CDU headquarters in Berlin, Germany, July 2, 2018. REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke

Merkel struck a deal this week with her Bavarian allies to limit migrant entries through the border with Austria but she still needs to secure support from her Social Democrat (SPD) junior coalition partners.

“I can’t promise that there won’t be disputes again about other issues, as this is usual when a government includes three parties,” Merkel told ARD television when asked if her coalition would last a full four-year term.

“This time it was a heavy dispute about a topic that is also very emotional. But I firmly expect and I’ll do my part to ensure that we do our government work in a good way, and not only now but also in the coming years,” she said.

Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) averted a resignation by Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, who leads the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU), by agreeing a system of transit centers on the German border.

From there, migrants already registered elsewhere in the European Union and not entitled to settle in Germany could be deported.

The SPD, which must back the plan for it to go ahead, wants to avoid creating the impression that the transit centers will amount to internment centers for refugees.

The agreement has disconcerted some Social Democrats who fear for the migrants’ civil liberties.

Merkel told ARD that migrants will be held for a maximum of 48 hours at the transit centers, an apparent attempt to allay SPD concerns, adding that the 48-hour limit was mandated by the German constitution.

Earlier on Wednesday, Merkel defended the planned tighter border controls from attacks by both the SPD and the far-right opposition.

Some members of the center-left SPD had criticized the new rules as being too draconian while the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany (AfD) party called on Merkel to resign, denouncing the measures as too soft and vague.

Migrant arrivals peaked in 2015 at more than a million people, many of them fleeing the Syrian war and therefore entitled to asylum, while others were trying to escape poverty.

‘NO MASS CAMPS’

Numbers have since dropped sharply but Merkel told parliament that Germans had to be reassured. “Order must be brought to all forms of migration so people have the impression that law and order is being implemented,” she said to applause from her own lawmakers but jeers from the AfD.

Merkel offered the chance for people seeking a better life, including Africans, to contribute to German society too.

“There must be legal possibilities for study and work,” she said. “We need a law on immigration for skilled workers so we can create a win-win situation. Otherwise we won’t be able to combat the people traffickers.”

Despite her reassurances that the coalition government would survive, Merkel still has to overcome stiff resistance to the new measures from some SPD lawmakers.

“We reject mass camps,” wrote SPD Foreign Minister Heiko Maas in a Tweet. “We need a humanitarian and realistic migration policy.”

Talks between the three awkward coalition partners continue, and it may yet prove hard to reconcile Seehofer’s CSU, which faces a strong AfD challenge in Bavarian elections in October, with the Social Democrats’ more dovish line.

AfD co-leader Alice Weidel, issuing her demand for Merkel to quit, dismissed the deal as a “bundle of commonplaces that they want to sell to us as a European solution”.

German officials are laying the groundwork for the deals they will also need to reach with neighboring countries to return migrants if the plan is to have any chance of working.

On Thursday, Seehofer is due to visit Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, while Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, another outspoken critic of Merkel’s hitherto open-doors immigration policy, is due in Berlin.

Additional reporting by Thomas Escritt, Editing by William Maclean

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