sexta-feira, 20 de novembro de 2015
Bavarians at the gate - The message from the front line: Germany can’t keep taking refugees.
Christian Bernreiter of the conservative Bavarian CSU party, above left, inside his office in Deggendorf, Germany.
Bavarians at the gate
The message from the front line: Germany can’t keep taking refugees.
By JANOSCH DELCKER 11/20/15, 5:30 AM CET Updated 11/20/15, 7:53 AM CET
DEGGENDORF, Germany — When Bavaria’s state premier gets a text message from Christian
Bernreiter, which is a pretty regular occurrence these days, he reacts instantly, according to fellow members of their conservative regional party, the Christian Social Union (CSU).
As well as a direct line to state premier Horst Seehofer, the softly-spoken local administrator has the rapt attention of Angela Merkel’s government in Berlin: Bernreiter’s district of Deggendorf, near the Czech and Austrian borders, is on the front line in Europe’s refugee crisis. In true German fashion, he is unstinting with his blunt opinions and advice.
“Chancellor Merkel promised us as early as September 28 that she’ll work day and night to reduce the numbers of refugees,” he told POLITICO at his office, seated beneath a crucifix and a framed Bavarian landscape. “But we don’t have much time left.”
It many ways, it’s fortunate for Europe that this prosperous and highly-organized German region has become the gateway for hundreds of thousands of migrants — some estimate as many as 1.5 million by year’s end — seeking shelter or a better life in the country with Europe’s strongest economy and, so far, the most welcoming attitude towards refugees from the Syrian war.
The federal government, which is under assault from disgruntled Bavarian politicians with disproportionate weight in German national politics who want the influx of refugees brought under control, doesn’t always see it that way.
“The whole situation would be different if the refugees entered through any other state but Bavaria,” complained one official in Berlin, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The CSU exists only in Bavaria, where its federal partner, Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU), do not stand for elections. At national level the CSU forms a parliamentary group with the CDU, known as the “Union,” giving the Bavarian party three national ministries in the “grand coalition” government between the conservatives and the Social Democrats.
In the same way that the CSU blurs the border between regional and federal politics, the refugee crisis blurs the distinction between local politics and geopolitics. Nowhere is this more apparent than rural districts like Deggendorf and nearby Passau, which must now cope in just a few days with the number of refugees that some major EU countries are willing to accept in a few years.
“There were weeks of negotiations when it was about saving Greece and other states, and they were primarily asking for German solidarity,” said Bernreiter. “Now they turn away, and say ‘This is just the Germans’ problem.’”
Tell it to Merkel
His counterpart Franz Meyer in rural Passau, which is right on the Austrian border, said Germany was one of only a handful of EU countries stepping up to the plate.
“When I hear that, for instance, France wants to take in 25,000 refugees within the next two years — in the Passau area, that’s the number of arrivals within three days. When I hear that the Czech Republic has received 1,000 applications for asylum since January — that’s approximately the number of refugees coming across the Bavarian-Austrian border in two hours,” he said.
In his office by Passau’s baroque cathedral, Meyer said his district currently houses 1,800 asylum seekers and will need 1,000 more beds in coming months. Simply put, Passau has taken on more refugees already than some European nations. “More solidarity is needed,” he said.
This is a message the German chancellor will hear in person from her Bavarian cousins this weekend, when she attends the CSU party congress in Munich. The politicians from Deggendorf, Passau and other deluged communities like Freilassing are looking to party leader Seehofer to channel their frustration and expectations for change, in what will be a tough session for Merkel.
Her speech is pointedly scheduled straight after a vote among delegates on whether to call for an upper limit to the number of refugees the country should accept. At a time when nearby states like Austria, Slovenia and Hungary are erecting fences to control the flow of refugees, Bavaria does not propose interfering with the Schengen area, aware that nobody has benefited from the EU’s open borders — and common currency — more than German exporters.
Neither does the CSU voice openly anti-immigrant sentiment. Germany’s history of oppression weighs on all mainstream politicians and railing against refugees is the terrain of fringe right-wing groups like the anti-Islam PEGIDA or the xenophobic National Democrats (NPD).
The way the Bavarians see it, Merkel’s decision in September to take in thousands of Syrians camped out at Budapest’s train station opened the floodgates. While Bavaria’s initial positive reaction prompted heartwarming scenes of solidarity in Munich’s railway station, nobody anticipated they would arrive in such numbers. Local leaders like Meyer say it “sent a wrong signal. It’s the task of local politicians to demand that the stream of refugees should be limited.”
“At some point, the last gym will be filled” —
Christian Bernreiter, Deggendorf district.
Bernreiter, a 51-year-old engineer who is the spokesman for a pressure group of Bavaria’s 71 district leaders, will ensure Seehofer stays on message at the congress: “I’m in constant contact with him. Premier Seehofer stands close by our side. He knows what’s going on on the ground.”
Just in case the message doesn’t get across loud and clear, however, Bernreiter has twice in recent weeks taken a break from local duties, like giving local firemen long-service awards, to travel to Berlin with dozens of colleagues to lobby the chancellor in person. Appearing on TV alongside Merkel’s point man on the refugee crisis, cabinet chief Peter Altmaier, he warned that Bavaria’s capacity to house refugees in disused public buildings and school sports halls would soon be exhausted: “At some point, the last gym will be filled.”
The chancellor’s man toured Bavarian refugee centers a fortnight later and told reporters: “I got the message.” There followed a compromise between Merkel, Seehofer and SPD leader Sigmar Gabriel to reform German asylum rules. Since November 1 it has been faster to process aslyum requests and return unsuccessful applicants, while handouts have been cut in a nod to those who complain that many migrants, especially from the Balkans, have purely financial motives.
Meyer from Passau said such measures help “restore order, but they don’t reduce the stream of refugees. We need better protection of Europe’s external borders. This is something the German government has to push through in Brussels, that’s the decisive step.”
There is more than a touch of theatrics in the CSU’s ongoing revolt against Merkel’s open-doors policy, which appears aimed at a domestic, Bavarian audience. Although Merkel was reportedly furious at Seehofer’s decision in September to invite her Hungarian nemesis, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, to a Bavarian party congress, she knows Seehofer won’t do anything to endanger his party’s national influence via the CDU, just as he knows she won’t jettison the support of the Bavarian conservatives who have run the region almost uninterrupted in the post-war period.
“Everything the party does — including its actions within the national government — is meant to contribute to the goal of remaining the hegemonic party in Bavaria. That’s decisive for the CSU,” said Frank Decker, a politics professor at the University of Bonn.
“Everything the party does … is meant to contribute to the goal of remaining the hegemonic party in Bavaria” — Frank Decker, politics professor.
This helps explain why, although many German regions and municipalities are straining under the influx of refugees, Merkel is subject to more criticism from her Bavarian allies than, for example, her sometime rivals in the SPD. The regionally-based CSU is much more susceptible than parties with a national base to “changing moods in local politics,” said Decker.
Seehofer, a towering, white-haired 66-year-old, is additionally vulnerable since announcing that he will step down from all his posts in 2018, opening up the leadership stakes to the likes of the ambitious and outspoken Bavarian finance minister, Markus Söder, who is 18 years his junior and potentially even more likely to use the refugee crisis, and related issues, for political ends.
In the wake of the Paris attacks, Söder tweeted: “We must not allow illegal and uncontrolled immigration.” He was accused on social media of using the tragedy in Paris to stir up sentiment against refugees. A day later, in a newspaper interview, he said: “Paris changes everything.”