FRANKFURT (Reuters) - German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Sunday defended her open-door policy for migrants, rejecting any limit on the number of refugees allowed into her country despite divisions within her government.
Merkel said there was no ‘Plan B’ for her aim of reducing the flow of migrants through cooperation with Turkey, efforts she said could unravel were Germany to cap the number of refugees it accepts.
“Sometimes, I also despair. Some things go too slow. There are many conflicting interests in Europe,” Merkel told state broadcaster ARD. “But it is my damn duty to do everything I can so that Europe finds a collective way.”
Merkel spelled out her motivation to keep Germany’s borders open without limits on refugees, a goal many in her own country and coalition government openly disagree with.
“There is so much violence and hardship on our doorstep,” she said. “What’s right for Germany in the long term? There, I think it is to keep Europe together and to show humanity.”
Merkel, once highly popular, has seen her ratings plummet because of her handling of the migrants issue. The majority of those surveyed by public broadcaster ARD earlier in February were dissatisfied with her.
Germany attracted 1.1 million asylum seekers last year, leading to calls from across the political spectrum for a change in its handling of refugees coming to Europe to escape war and poverty in Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
Merkel now faces what she said on Sunday was the biggest challenge of her decade in office.
She is struggling to secure a Europe-wide plan for dealing with the migrants. She is pinning her hopes on talks between European Union leaders and Turkey on March 7 and a migration summit on March 18 and 19.
After many failed attempts, the two meetings look like the final chance to agree on a joint response before warmer weather encourages more arrivals across the Mediterranean. But Merkel said she would fight on for a European solution even were the March 7 meeting to fall short.
The migrants question has not only divided Europe. There is also strong dissent within Germany and the governing coalition.
Politicians from the state of Bavaria’s Christian Social Union, the sister party to Merkel’s CDU, have been critical of her stance.
They want a limit on the number of migrants, similar to that imposed in Austria. So too does the majority of Germans in the ARD survey.
Austria, the last stop on the way to Germany for hundreds of thousands of migrants, recently imposed restrictions on its borders, setting off a domino effect in Europe in limiting the flow of people, and leaving hundreds stranded in Greece.
Merkel dismissed such a “rigid limit”, saying: “There is no point in believing that I can solve the problem through the unilateral closure of borders.”
Merkel made her comments as the rift widened in her governing coalition over how to cope with an influx of refugees.
Leading German Social Democrats, part of the country’s governing coalition, earlier accused Merkel’s conservative finance minister of being too thrifty in dealing with the migrant crisis.
The criticism came after Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble labelled Social Democrat proposals for wider social spending on housing and public services to complement the integration of migrants as “pitiful”.
Stephan Weil, the Social Democrat premier of the state of Lower Saxony, hit back on Sunday, calling for a bigger social services budget as the country accommodates over a million migrants. Merkel said she did not support such an idea.
“The finance minister obviously just doesn’t get it,” Weil told the Sueddeutsche Zeitung newspaper.
Pointing to the high cost of integrating migrants, Weil said: “We cannot create the impression that this is happening at the expense of the weaker members of our society.”
Heiko Maas, justice minister and a Social Democrat, was similarly critical and made a renewed call for more spending. “What’s more important? The people in the country or balancing the budget?”
Schaeuble, a long-standing proponent of prudence, wants to prevent Germany from spending more than it earns and is unlikely to be easily moved.
If spending were to spiral, it could further weaken Merkel’s fading support.
She has warned about the consequences for Europe of border closure. But a poor showing by the Christian Democrats in state elections in March would pressure her to reverse course.
“The international financial crisis was a big challenge. We managed that well. The euro crisis was a huge challenge,” said Merkel.
“This crisis is different because people are coming to us, people with a different cultural background ... where people ask what is this doing to our country.”
She said, however, that she saw nothing that would prompt her to change course. Commenting on her plan, Merkel, a trained scientist, said: “It’s all well thought through. It’s logical.”
Reporting by John O'Donnell; Editing by Ralph Boulton and Peter Cooney