Merkel draws party cheers for centrist line on refugees

14th December 2015, Comments 0 comments

German Chancellor Angela Merkel pledged Monday to reduce a massive refugee influx but insisted on keeping the door open to the world's neediest, drawing a rousing standing ovation from her party.

After weeks of infighting over the expected arrival of around one million asylum seekers to Germany this year, Merkel appeared to unite her conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) behind a centrist line of generosity with clear limits.

She drew loud applause as she repeated her rallying cry "We can do it" during an impassioned hour-long speech, capped by nine minutes in which the 1,000 delegates took to their feet to cheer their chancellor, who beamed and waved to the crowd.

Merkel appealed to the venerable party's sense of history, saying that the same strength that allowed it "to rebuild from the rubble of the war to create the economic miracle, and to go from division to a reunified country" would get Germany through the refugee crisis.

Even in the face of demands from the right wing of the party for an upper limit on newcomers, Merkel insisted Germany would never seal its border.

"We want to tangibly reduce the number of refugees arriving," Merkel said.

"With an approach focused on the German, European and global level, we will succeed in regulating and limiting migration."

But she said Germany had a "moral and political" duty as Europe's top economic power to continue to help the world's desperate people, particularly those from war-ravaged Syria.

"We will live up to our humanitarian responsibility," she said.

The gathering of around 1,000 delegates in the southwestern city of Karlsruhe was seen as one of the most important of Merkel's 15-year tenure at the helm of the party.

After weeks of internal debate, the CDU was at pains to stage a show of unity ahead of three key state elections in March and a decision next year whether Merkel will stand for a fourth term in the 2017 general election.

- 'Big heart, no strategy' -

Ahead of an EU summit this week, Merkel said she was banking on a multi-pronged approach to cut refugee numbers, urging bolstered protection for the bloc's external borders, support for Turkey to host refugees long-term, and a long-shot bid for a distribution scheme among EU member states.

She also touted a range of measures already undertaken in Germany including extending a list of safe countries of origin, expediting repatriation of rejected asylum seekers and beefing up staffing to process applicants.

Merkel is widely seen as Europe's most influential leader and bagged the "Person of the Year" award from TIME magazine last week and the Financial Times on Monday.

But her open-door stance has drawn fire at home and in many corners of Europe, with critics accusing her of having a big heart but no clear strategy.

The chancellor won a battle with the right-wing of the CDU in the run-up to the gathering by torpedoing its bid to set a cap on the number of asylum seekers Germany would take in -- a proposal she has denounced as immoral and unconstitutional.

The compromise text, due to be passed later Monday, instead calls for a "tangible reduction of asylum seekers and refugees".

Germany is divided roughly down the middle by the refugee issue, with a poll on Friday showing 49 percent opposed Merkel's stance while 47 percent supported it.

The CDU has grown jittery as the disaffection has given a boost to the right-wing populist AfD party, which has soared to 10 percent in some polls.

"Many traditional voters feel homeless," news weekly Der Spiegel wrote in its current cover story headlined "The Anxious Nation".

Nevertheless, the CDU has recovered its footing in the polls after a steep drop in the autumn and is now tallying about 39 percent, just 2.5 points off its 2013 showing in the general election.

The SPD, which has been riven between centrists and leftists since Merkel booted then chancellor Gerhard Schroeder out of office in 2005, trails far behind at about 24 percent.

Merkel also has no clear challenger within her party, as even CDU critics acknowledge that she is their strongest asset at the polls.

© 2015 AFP

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