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article imageMerkel buys time with party compromise on refugees

By Deborah Cole (AFP)     Dec 15, 2015 in World

German Chancellor Angela Merkel won a respite on the refugee question with a strong show of unity at a party congress but must deliver results ahead of key elections next year, analysts said Tuesday.

Merkel turned in a decisive performance at her conservative Christian Democrats' annual gathering Monday, uniting delegates behind a centrist line of humanitarian commitment to refugees coupled with a promise to reduce overall numbers.

"I am delighted that the delegates at this congress have given me strong backing for the many tasks yet to be solved," said Merkel after the meeting in the southwestern city of Karlsruhe.

Commentators said that predictions of Merkel's political demise after 10 years in office, rampant just weeks ago, would now go quiet, at least for a time.

Asylum seekers wait at a first registration centre for refugees in Giessen  western Germany  on Dece...
Asylum seekers wait at a first registration centre for refugees in Giessen, western Germany, on December 2, 2015
Boris Roessler, DPA/AFP/File

"There was a lot of criticism in the run-up to the event but with a clever, feisty appearance, Merkel managed to suddenly make this criticism look quite petty," news website Spiegel Online said.

"The twilight of Merkel has been called off for now."

The top-selling Bild called it her "strongest hour".

Christian Haardt, a member of the legislature in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany's most populous state, said Merkel's "inspiring" address would give the CDU momentum ahead of three important state elections in March.

"Merkel's speech sent the right message of unity and confidence to the party and the rest of the country," he told AFP.

"But of course party members are more loyal than voters -- they are still anxious and will need to be convinced."

Barbara Klepsch, social affair minister in Saxony, home to the anti-Muslim movement Pegida and the state with the highest number of attacks against refugee shelters, admitted local politicians now had their work cut out for them.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel (L) visits a shelter for asylum-seekers in Heidenau  eastern Germany
German Chancellor Angela Merkel (L) visits a shelter for asylum-seekers in Heidenau, eastern Germany
Tobias Schwarz, AFP/File

"We're facing a situation in villages and towns that we haven't seen since World War II," she told AFP.

"Our job is now to take this optimistic message that Merkel sent out back to the places where the fears are the biggest."

After weeks of damaging infighting over an expected one million new arrivals in 2015, Merkel successfully blocked right-wing rebels from having the party adopt a call for a firm cap on refugees.

Instead, she won overwhelming backing for a position paper calling for "a tangible reduction" of asylum seekers.

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

- 'A breather, nothing more' -

The party rewarded her carefully wrought compromise with a lengthy standing ovation and an implicit pledge to honour her call for "patience" for new German policies to take effect and to fight for more EU support for a more equitable distribution of asylum seekers.

Tents are set up to house refugees at the former Tempelhof airport in Berlin
Tents are set up to house refugees at the former Tempelhof airport in Berlin
Tobias Schwarz, AFP/File

Paul Ziemiak, head of the party's youth wing, which spearheaded the call for an upper limit on refugees, said his supporters had got the message across that a continued mass influx "would overwhelm the state and our society in the long run".

In just one electoral district of North Rhine-Westphalia, he noted, "we are taking in three times as many refugees as all of Poland".

Merkel's promise to staunch the flow of refugees was built on medium-to-long term goals, such as tackling the root causes of the mass exodus from crisis zones, increased European solidarity in sharing the refugee burden, and greater cooperation with Turkey, the main launchpad for migrant crossings to Europe.

Spiegel noted that such goals would take months if not years to realise.

"But the placated critics at the party congress won't give her that much time," it said. "Karlsruhe gave Merkel a breather, nothing more."

CDU deputy leader Julia Kloeckner warned that "integration shouldn't be left to chance&quo...
CDU deputy leader Julia Kloeckner warned that "integration shouldn't be left to chance"
John MacDougall, AFP/File

Despite the overwhelming show of support for Merkel, some critics said the party had failed to calm the fears of the CDU base.

Party deputy leader Julia Kloeckner, considered a CDU rising star, said the platform should have focused more on how to integrate mainly Muslim newcomers into German society, warning that "integration shouldn't be left to chance".

Bavarian premier Horst Seehofer, whose southern state is the gateway for most migrants, Tuesday made a fresh call for capping the number of arrivals.

"No country on Earth takes in an unlimited number of refugees," the head of the CDU's sister party the CSU told the congress.

But Merkel refused to be drawn into a spat, declaring that "the CDU and CSU are strongest when they work together, and I think there is a good basis for this joint approach".

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