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article imageMerkel draws party cheers for centrist line on refugees

By Deborah COLE (AFP)     Dec 14, 2015 in World

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 united her conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) behind a centrist line of generosity with clear limits.

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

Merkel, 61, 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 were never naive," she said.

"But at the same time we will not allow fear and pessimism to keep us from doing what we must for a successful future."

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Thomas Kienzle, AFP

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.

Merkel also insisted she took the concerns of the rank-and-file seriously.

"Even a strong country like Germany can be overwhelmed in the long-run by such a large number of refugees," she said.

"And that is why we want to and will tangibly reduce the number of refugees arriving."

Nevertheless, the chancellor won a battle with CDU rebels calling for a cap on the number of asylum seekers Germany would take in -- a proposal she denounced as immoral and unconstitutional.

Germany has seen a  xenophobic backlash  to the record influx of migrants  with a rise of arson atta...
Germany has seen a xenophobic backlash to the record influx of migrants with a rise of arson attacks on refugee shelters
Thomas Warnack, DPA/AFP/File

The compromise text, which passed after four hours of debate with an overwhelming majority, instead called for an unspecified reduction of refugee numbers.

The gathering 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.

"The applause should show that we in the CDU stand behind our party chief," the party's deputy leader Thomas Strobl said.

- '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.

Temporary walls are set up to house refugees at the former Tempelhof airport in Berlin on December 9...
Temporary walls are set up to house refugees at the former Tempelhof airport in Berlin on December 9, 2015
Tobias Schwarz, AFP/File

"This is an historic test for Europe and I want Europe to pass it," Merkel said.

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 applications.

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 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.

Germany is divided roughly down the middle by the refugee issue and the CDU has grown jittery as 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.

The second-place Social Democrats, junior partners in Merkel's "grand coalition" government, trail far behind with about 24 percent.

Merkel also has no clear successor within her party, as even CDU critics acknowledge that she remains its strongest asset at the polls.

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