November 1, 2015 / 8:04 PM / 2 years ago

Merkel's conservatives align refugee policy but coalition still at odds

BERLIN (Reuters) - German Chancellor Angela Merkel failed on Sunday to fully resolve differences within her ruling coalition over how to deal with the huge refugee influx, leaving open a row that has rocked her government.

Migrants queue on a bridge crossing the border river Inn at the German-Austrian frontier between Braunau and Simbach am Inn near Passau, Germany November 1, 2015. REUTERS/Michael Dalder

Government spokesman Steffen Seibert described talks between the three party leaders as “constructive”, but said they would meet again on Thursday. German media had billed Sunday’s meeting as a crisis summit.

Germany, Europe’s biggest economy and long a magnet for migrants, expects between 800,000 and a million asylum seekers to arrive this year, twice as many as in any previous year, and far more than in any other European Union country.

The influx has opened up divisions within the coalition, with the Bavarian sister party of Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) demanding tougher action that many in the third ruling party, the Social Democrats (SPD), oppose.

“There is a lot of common ground and some points that remain open and still to be settled,” Steffen said, adding that these included the idea of introducing so-called “transit zones” at border crossings to process asylum requests.

Looking glum, SPD leader Sigmar Gabriel left the chancellery after the 2-hour meeting with Merkel and Horst Seehofer, leader of the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU).

Merkel and Seehofer stayed on and aligned their positions but must now get the SPD on board. Conservative officials welcomed the progress between the CDU and CSU, whose diverging views had ramped up tensions within the ruling coalition.

TRANSIT ZONES

Bavaria is bearing the brunt of the refugee arrivals and Seehofer is under intense pressure in his state to press the federal government to stem the tide of people from war- and poverty-stricken areas of the Middle East, Asia and Africa.

As well as agreeing on the swift introduction of transit zones, the conservative allies floated plans to restrict the right of some migrants to have their families follow them to Germany, and called for joint German-Austrian police patrols along the border with Austria.

Deputy Finance Minister Jens Spahn, a conservative, told Reuters that no society could in the long-run cope with 10,000 people arriving a day without controls, and praised the CDU/CSU accord on transit zones and cooperation with Austria.

“So, dear SPD, let’s do it. Quickly,” he added, pressing Gabriel’s party to back their plans at Thursday’s meeting.

However, some SPD members have said they would not agree to the transit zones. The conservatives have had to deny that such centers would resemble concentration camps.

Infighting between the CDU and CSU has hurt their standing. Seehofer had issued a series of ultimatums to Merkel in recent weeks, including a threat to take the government to court over its policies on migrants, only to back down at the last minute.

A weekly survey by pollster Emnid put support for the CDU/CSU steady at 36 percent, but still far below the 43 percent they enjoyed as recently as August.

Gabriel’s SPD fell 1 percentage point to 25 percent, the poll showed. The right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) party gained one point to 8 percent.

Gabriel said last month that Germany must win over skeptics or else risk “planting social explosives in our nation”, and Germany’s police chief has said the uncontrolled influx poses a domestic security threat.

Additional reporting by Andreas Rinke; Editing by Victoria Bryan and Alison Williams

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