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Peace, for Now, Over Germany's Migrant Deal


German Chancellor Angela Merkel, right, shakes hands with Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, left, as they arrive for a special faction meeting of the Christian Union parties, ahead of a debate at the German parliament in Berlin, July 3, 2018.

Peace in Berlin — but for how long?

A last-minute migrant deal secured Monday by beleaguered German Chancellor Angela Merkel with the junior partners in her shaky coalition has averted the collapse of her government for now, say analysts.

But the deal, which will see transit zones established along Germany’s southern border to allow for accelerated deportations of migrants not entitled to seek asylum, also has finally brought to a close Merkel’s open-door refugee policy and revealed the brittleness of her coalition government.

Syrian refugees arrive at the camp for refugees and migrants in Friedland, Germany, April 4, 2016.
Syrian refugees arrive at the camp for refugees and migrants in Friedland, Germany, April 4, 2016.

The more restrictive border policy agreed between Merkel and Horst Seehofer, her rebellious interior minister and leader of the Bavarian Christian Social Union, still has to be approved by her other partners, the Social Democrats, in her three-way coalition government.

They have rejected the proposal before, dubbing the zones as “prison camps,” but appear ready now to accept the broad-outlines of a deal, according to party insiders, if for no other reason than that early elections would likely see the Social Democrats lose even more ground than they did in last year’s polls. So, there’s peace for now. But few political observers believe the deal has done much more than place a lid on divergent views within the coalition government over migrants. Nor has it done anything to ease the mutual dislike Seehofer and Merkel hold for each other, and they don’t bother to disguise.

The deal struck Monday after weeks of wrangling followed a dramatic escalation with Seehofer telling a party gathering in Munich that he planned to resign as interior minister, if Merkel blocked him from turning back any migrants at the border who’d been processed already in other European Countries and use Europe’s open borders to head to Germany.

While allowing Merkel to claim the deal has not breached any EU rules nor undermined the search for an EU-wide solution to the migrant crisis roiling the continent and fueling the rise of euro-skeptic nationalist populist parties, it has clearly altered Germany’s migrant policy. It also has shifted the country to adopt much harsher border policies than Merkel would have liked.

It means a country that in the past championed more open migrant policies is now shifting to a far more hostile position toward asylum-seekers, say rights groups, adding to a harsher environment for migrants across the continent.

People wait in front of the food bank "Tafel" for free food in Essen, Germany, Feb. 24, 2018. Essen's division of the charitable organization announced not to take any new migrant customers because their number rises up to 75 percent and would block out needy elderly German people.
People wait in front of the food bank "Tafel" for free food in Essen, Germany, Feb. 24, 2018. Essen's division of the charitable organization announced not to take any new migrant customers because their number rises up to 75 percent and would block out needy elderly German people.

Merkel has put a brave face on Monday’s deal, highlighting the fact it means Germany will not be adopting the complete go-it-alone approach Seehofer favors.

The deal, she says, “preserves the spirit of partnership in the EU while marking a decisive step towards ordering and controlling secondary migration.”

Merkel’s fear was that by slamming the door firmly shut on migrants, other EU countries would do the same, triggering domino-effect border closures and effectively dismantling the bloc’s Schengen system of open borders.

But analysts say it isn’t clear as yet whether the deal will work on a practical level or that it will help to advance a more collective sand unified EU approach.

Under the plan, migrants who already have been processed elsewhere in Europe in the first EU country they arrived in or were registered in can be swiftly sent back to that country without a prolonged administrative procedure. But they can only be returned to a country Germany has an agreed bilateral return arrangement with. And Merkel’s efforts to draw up such return agreements with more than a dozen EU countries has met with several rebuffs.

Both Italy, the first arrival country in the EU for many of the migrants turning up in Germany, and Austria, a main transit country, have declined entering into return agreements.

Austria's Defense Minister Hans Peter Doskozil addresses a news conference in Vienna, Austria, Sept. 26, 2017.
Austria's Defense Minister Hans Peter Doskozil addresses a news conference in Vienna, Austria, Sept. 26, 2017.

Austrian politicians have greeted the Merkel-Seehofer deal with skepticism and anger.

“We can’t accept this,” said former Austrian defense minister Hans Peter Doskozil.

Austria’s government warned Tuesday it may introduce “measures to protect.” In a statement, the Austrian government said if the Merkel-Seehofer agreement is approved by the German government as a whole, “we will be obliged to take measures to avoid disadvantages for Austria and its people.”

Among the measures, Austrian officials said, would be closing the country’s borders with Italy and Slovenia, blocking migrants from entering Austria with the goal of reaching Germany. Austrian officials say they fear the Merkel-Seehofer deal will end up with Austria being forced to house the migrants that Germany has rejected.

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz attends a news conference in Vienna, Austria July 3, 2018.
Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz attends a news conference in Vienna, Austria July 3, 2018.

“We are now waiting for a rapid clarification of the German position at a federal level,” said the statement, signed by Austria’s conservative Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and his allies of the far-right Freedom party, Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache and Interior Minister Herbert Kickl.

Disputes over the deal now threaten to upend the highly fragile migrant deal European leaders claimed they struck last week after a marathon session in Brussels.

Under that deal migrants rescued at sea would be sent to “control centers” across the bloc — at locations still to be decided — to be rapidly processed with economic migrants being deported speedily.

The leaders also agreed to tighten the EU’s external border; to give more money to countries such as Turkey and Morocco to help prevent migrants setting off for Europe; and to set up processing centers in countries across North Africa to deter migrants, and to sort out war refugees from economic migrants. But no African country has so agreed to house EU-run processing centers.

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