Refugee deal paves way for German coalition
A concession by Angela Merkel on curbing the number of refugees allowed into Germany has paved the way for German coalition talks that could bring together her CDU-CSU bloc with the Greens and liberal Free Democrats. Carol Major discusses the deal and what kind of coalition is likely to emerge with Guy Chazan, the FT's Berlin correspondent.
Produced by Fiona Symon
From the Financial Times in London, I'm Carol Major. And this is FT News. A deal on curbing immigration has paved the way for German chancellor Angela Merkel to open talks on a coalition government with the Greens and the Liberal Free Democrats. That's the so-called Jamaica coalition, named after the party's black, green, and yellow colours.
Ms. Merkel is now trying to put together a coalition between her CDU/CSU block, and the two smaller parties following last month's election, when both her block and the Social Democrats slumped to their worst result since 1949. On the line with me to discuss what happens next and what kind of government is likely to take shape in Germany, is our Berlin correspondent, Guy Chazan.
Hello, Guy. First, tell us what exactly the two centre right parties agreed to, and how difficult it might be to implement these curbs.
Well, they agreed that there shouldn't be more than 200,000 refugees admitted into Germany every year. At the heart of this whole issue is a long-running disagreement between these two sister parties, the CDU and the CSU. The CSU is the Bavarian arm of the Christian Democrats. And they have been arguing, as I say, for two years over the refugee issue. The CSU has been demanding an upper limit on the number of refugees that Germany can let in.
I think everybody was so shocked when Ms. Merkel decided to open the borders in 2015. They had almost a million refugees enter just in 2015 alone. And I think they don't want that situation to repeat itself. Now Ms. Merkel consistently rejected the CSU's demand for an upper limit on refugees, saying it was unconstitutional. Because according to the German constitution, anyone fleeing war and persecution has a right to claim asylum in Germany. And you can't put an upper limit on it.
But it does look like she's finally given ground in this big dispute, and they've come up with a figure of 200,000. So the number of refugees coming into Germany can't exceed that figure. But it's a compromise. Because the actual expression, upper limit, was not used. So it's a sort of face-saving formula for both of them. How it's going to actually be implemented is very difficult to tell, because they really did not address the question of what happens if the 200,001st refugee crosses the border and claims asylum. Will they be turned back at the border or not?
No one really has a clear answer as to how that would work. But Ms. Merkel was very clear that it's sort of a ballpark figure, rather than a hard and fast limit. And that means that if there are humanitarian emergencies that this figure of 200,000 can be adjusted up or down, as the situation demands.
Neither the Greens nor the FDP were in favour of these curbs, were they? So what are the other obstacles to Ms. Merkel building a coalition with those two parties? They're not natural bedfellows.
No, they disagree on lots of different things. Although I think the refugee issue is one of the biggest hurdles. But we're going to find that really on a lot of issues there will be divergences of opinion, which could be unbridgeable. For example if we look at the future of the German car industry, the Greens want to phase out petrol and diesel engines, and they want a sort of thoroughgoing revolution in the industry, with a total focus on electric vehicles.
The CSU, for one, has said that it won't enter any kind of coalition government where there's a phase-out with a firm date for these conventional engines. So there's going to be a lot of disagreement on issues like that. The Greens have very firm ideas about environmental protection, not just as regards to the car industry, but other issues as well. And I think there's going to be some very fiery debates between the coalition partners on issues such as that. There are other things that the FDP wants to do which the Greens oppose. The Greens would like to see a more positive response to Emmanuel Macron's proposals for reforming the EU. But the FDP is much more euro-skeptic than the Greens.
So on a number of issues, there's just lots of bones of contention. And at this stage, it's not looking great in terms of whether they'll be able to actually overcome all their disagreements.
If they do succeed and put together some kind of a coalition, what might they actually seek to implement? Are there areas of agreement anywhere, for example, the economy? What might they seek to do?
Yes, I mean I think that they're all very keen on trying to make the German economy more future-orientated with much more of a focus on digitalisation and research into things like electric vehicles. All of the parties are trying to outdo each other in being future-orientated and trying to make the German economy fit for the digital future. So I think there will be a lot of convergence on those issues.
There's also a sense among all the parties that Germany is lagging behind in terms of digital infrastructure-- high-speed internet, and fibre optic cables, and that kind of thing. So I think there will be a real push by all the parties to make progress on that. Europe is probably a bit harder to reach convergence on. And some of the parties, for example, the CDU, CSU, and the FDP would very much like to see tax cuts. Whereas the Greens, I think, would oppose those.
So on some things they might find it easy to reach consensus; on others, probably not.
And what roles are there for the Social Democrats, which performed very badly in the elections too?
Well, the Social Democrats will enter the opposition. They will seek to rebuild and reinvent themselves, I think. Because it was such a terrible defeat that I think they need to go away and lick their wounds, and come up with a vision for the future. But the SPD is still very important in German politics. I mean they run several regional governments. So they haven't gone away completely. In fact, there's an election in the region of Lower Saxony this Sunday, and current polls suggest that the SPD will win. So it wasn't a complete wipe-out. Obviously, they did very badly on a national level. But on a regional level, they're still very much a factor.
And how about the anti-immigration AfD? They had a surprisingly strong result with nearly 13%. What sort of influence are they going to have over policy making?
Well, I think in a way we've already seen that they have an influence. Because the CSU did terribly in Bavaria. They lost about 10.5 percentage points with a result of about 38%. That was largely because a lot of their voters defected to the AfD. And I think it was a lot to do with their policy on refugees. They had obviously tried to push this idea of an upper limit on the refugees and got nowhere. Ms. Merkel just consistently rejected that idea.
Now we've seen her make concessions. And I think is partly to do with shock as to the AfD's surprise showing in the election in September, and a sense that they really do have to do something to address the anger of voters in places like Bavaria. So you're already seeing that they are influencing national politics. Whether that will continue to be the case is unclear. They'll definitely be seeking to insert a kind of euro-skeptic tone into debates in the Bundestag. And that's a tone that we haven't really seen in the last four years or so. So there'll be a very, very shrill anti-immigration and euro-skeptic tone in parliamentary debates, which is a new phenomenon for Germany.
But whether they'll actually be able to really influence government policy is unclear at this stage. Ms. Merkel has been quite clear that she has absolutely no intention of trimming her policies to fit in with the AfD.
So it's certainly a change in style, if not substance. With that thought, we'll leave it there. Thanks to Guy in Berlin. And from us in the studio here in London, good-bye.