Under fire in refugee crisis, Merkel goes on offensive

Frank Zeller
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German Chancellor Angela Merkel (R) at a TV interview with Anne Will (L) in Berlin on October, 7, 2015

German Chancellor Angela Merkel (R) at a TV interview with Anne Will (L) in Berlin on October, 7, 2015 (AFP Photo/Michael Kappeler)

Berlin (AFP) - Under growing domestic pressure over her open-door policy on refugees, Germany's Angela Merkel has come out swinging, insisting "we will manage" the crisis set to define her nearly decade-old chancellorship.

Usually calm and measured if not dull, Merkel spoke passionately in an hour-long TV interview late Wednesday on one of Germany's most popular talk shows.

Amid the historic migrant influx, she implored citizens to harness the bold can-do spirit of Germany's reunification a quarter-century ago, and to remember that granting safe haven to persecuted people is a core European ideal.

"We will manage this, of that I am firmly convinced," she repeated mantra-like, while brushing off questions about whether her greatest policy gamble will win her the Nobel Peace Prize or cost her her job.

The migrant crisis has deeply polarised Germany. After the "summer fairytale" of volunteers cheering refugees at railway stations, the mood has darkened in many parts as have the autumn skies over crowded tent cities.

As thousands more migrants have kept coming every day, straining resources, doubts have grown among many about whether Germany can cope.

The expected number of arrivals this year is at least 800,000, or one percent of the national population, and could swell to perhaps one million, and the influx is not expected to slow any time soon.

- 'Combat mode' -

"Merkel's toughest battle," ran a headline in Bild, Germany's top-selling newspaper, which judged that "the refugee crisis is decisive for the political future of the chancellor".

It said the leader is now "in combat mode". Two years ahead of the next federal election, it said, "the question isn't just, will she return to the chancellory, but, can she stay in office?"

Merkel, usually voted Germany's most popular politician, has slipped to fourth place in a recent ranking.

Unusually for the "teflon chancellor", hailed at home for steering Europe's top economy safely through years of eurozone turmoil, some of the harshest sniping has now come from her own usually loyal ranks.

More than 30 local and state politicians of her Christian Democrats (CDU) complained in an open letter that "the current open-borders policy conforms neither with European or German law, nor is it consistent with the CDU programme".

The head of Merkel's sister party the CSU in southern Bavaria state -- the main gateway for the newcomers -- has protested loudest.

Horst Seehofer has insisted the system is close to "collapse" and, after weighing the idea of creating holding camps near the Austrian border, threatened to somehow take "effective self-defence".

On the far-right fringe, anti-Islamic and openly xenophobic rallies have swelled again in the former communist East, and the populist-nationalist Alternative for Germany party has risen to seven percent in recent polls.

- 'Can't close borders' -

On Wednesday, Merkel took charge, appointing her chief-of-staff Peter Altmaier as the refugee policy tsar, leaving the "operative coordination" to Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere.

Later she and French President Francois Hollande delivered a rare joint speech to the European parliament on the continent's biggest migrant crisis since World War II.

In the evening TV show, Merkel conceded that amid the current chaos no-one knows the exact number of arrivals, but also delivered a reality check to those who want to shutter German borders.

"We cannot close the borders," she said. "If you build a fence, people will find other ways. There is no such thing as putting a stop to it."

In a crisis that is both local and global, she was asked about how German villages can cope with overcrowded asylum-seeker camps, how to secure the EU's external frontiers, and how to bring peace to Syria.

Talking to Turkey about more aid for refugee camps, she said in unusually blunt language, "is my damned duty".

Her critics' biggest complaint is that Merkel -- by broadcasting her stance worldwide with statements and selfies with refugees -- has turned Germany into a magnet for ever-more refugees.

But Merkel insisted she would not "join a contest on who is the most unfriendly to refugees so that they stop coming".

"Do you think hundreds of thousands of people leave their homeland because of a selfie?" she asked. "That this makes them jump onto rubber dingies?"

The conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung daily judged Merkel in her TV performance as "lively, dynamic and yet with her back against the wall".

Merkel, the newspaper said, spoke "like a waterfall and lively like never before, which showed how critical the situation is".