How Angela Merkel's would-be successors compare on Middle East and refugee policy

German election in September will determine the next chancellor

epa09132432 German Chancellor Angela Merkel gives a statement after a cabinet meeting in Berlin, 13 April 2021. The German cabinet in its 137th session agreed on a change of the German Infection Protection law amid the coronavirus pandemic that would allow the implementation of countrywide counter-measures in case of a certain rate of infections. Both chambers of the German parliament still have to approve the amendment.  EPA/ANDREAS GORA / POOL
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Angela Merkel's decision to open Germany's doors to Syrian refugees was one of the defining moments of her 16 years in power and has been a flashpoint in German politics ever since.

But Ms Merkel is bowing out this year and the candidates to succeed her at September’s election are largely unknown quantities in foreign policy – although they have struck different tones on the refugee issue.

Dr Muriel Asseburg, an expert on migration and the Middle East at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, told The National that the parties' room for manoeuvre on migration was limited, as crisis-hit Germans say it is "time to focus on the domestic population's demands".

But she said the parties vying for the chancellorship would come under pressure from the far-right Alternative for Germany, which has sought to make out that "everything's fine in Syria" and that refugees can return.

Two men are fighting to lead Ms Merkel's conservative bloc into the election, while the Greens are poised to choose a nominee and the Social Democrats (SPD) have already picked their candidate.

The National examines the positions on Middle East and refugee policy of the main contenders.

FILE PHOTO: German Christian Democratic Union Party Leader Armin Laschet briefs the media after a meeting of the party's board at the headquarters in Berlin, Germany, April 12, 2021. Markus Schreiber/Pool via Reuters/File Photo
CDU leader Armin Laschet. Reuters

Armin Laschet, Christian Democratic Union

Mr Laschet, above, is a centrist ally of Ms Merkel who defended the chancellor's decision to open Germany's borders during the 2015 refugee crisis.

As premier of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, he described the region as an "open-minded land of integration with a culture of welcoming persecuted people and their families".

But he also said in 2019, when his government deported the leader of an alleged Al Qaeda cell to Morocco, that “criminals and people who pose a danger will be systematically deported, more than in any other state”.

Dr Asseburg said Mr Laschet had “not been at the forefront of allowing more refugees in or taking a special role towards assuming more responsibility towards refugees”.

“I find it difficult to foresee how he would handle that as a chancellor. That is more linked to his personality, which I would see as not very easy to predict,” she said.

Mr Laschet’s foreign policy views have been under scrutiny since he was elected CDU leader in January, partly because of his statements on Syria.

He was a critic of western intervention against Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, which he said had facilitated the rise of ISIS. He also defended Mr Al Assad by claiming that Syrians enjoyed religious freedom before the outbreak of war.

Mr Laschet's views on the Middle East include public warmth towards Jordan, which he described last month as a "cornerstone of stability for the whole region".

He also praised the nuclear deal with Iran, which he said had "made the world safer".

epa09133203 State Premier of Bavaria and Christian Social Union (CSU) chairman Markus Soeder talks to the media as he leaves after a CDU/CSU faction meeting in Berlin, Germany, 13 April 2021. CDU and CSU sister parties are trying to find a candidate for Chancellorship. The choice is to be made between Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party chairman Armin Laschet and State Premier of Bavaria and Christian Social Union (CSU) chairman Markus Soeder.  EPA/CLEMENS BILAN
CSU leader Markus Soeder. EPA 

Markus Soeder, Christian Social Union

Mr Soeder, above, the minister-president of Bavaria who is vying with Mr Laschet to lead the joint CDU-CSU ticket into the election, used tougher language on the refugee issue.

At the height of the 2015 migration crisis, he said that Germany could “not take in all the world’s refugees” and urged a debate on putting up border fences in Europe.

In a 2018 interview he said that Bavaria did “not want to bring in any Islamic holidays”.

But Dr Asseburg said Mr Soeder’s tough language was partly a question of image.

“Soeder likes to project the image that he’s taking a tough line. I’m not sure that he is actually taking a tougher line than others do. The toughness is mainly about trying to get the process done in an orderly fashion,” she said.

“In the end, I don’t see him as necessarily much tougher than his SPD colleagues or colleagues from the CDU.”

Having spent his career in regional politics, Mr Soeder’s foreign policy record is limited.

Dr Asseburg said that Mr Laschet and Mr Soeder, who lead the two most populous states in Germany, were both “very much domestic politicians”.

Mr Soeder’s stance on refugees brought him into conflict with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who he criticised for threatening to tear up the EU-Ankara agreement on protecting Europe’s borders.

He also ventured into foreign policy in 2019 to criticise Nato member Turkey over its offensive in northern Syria.

FILE PHOTO: Leaders of Germany's Green Party Robert Habeck and Annalena Baerbock are seen during the delegates' conference in Bielefeld, Germany November 16, 2019. REUTERS/Leon Kuegeler/File Photo
Green leaders Robert Habeck and Annalena Baerbock. Reuters 

Robert Habeck and Annalena Baerbock, The Greens

The Greens have yet to decide which of their two co-leaders, Robert Habeck, above left, and Annalena Baerbock, right, will run for the chancellorship in September’s election.

Mr Habeck’s career has focused on domestic politics, while Ms Baerbock held a foreign policy brief in the party but is also the youngest and least experienced of the candidates, Dr Asseburg said.

On migration, Dr Asseburg said the Greens would be more open to “family reunification” policies seeking to reunite solo refugees with their relatives.

The party would also seek a “more principled immigration law that looks towards the medium and long term and allows for immigration of qualified workers and qualified professionals”, she said.

A Green election manifesto calls for streamlining the asylum process so that applicants will know more quickly whether they can stay in Germany.

But Dr Asseburg said that the Greens would not come out with a “major initiative of changing everything” on refugee policy.

In foreign policy, she said there would be a greater emphasis on human rights and accountability if the Greens joined the government for the first time since 2005.

“We would see a different approach towards refugees and migration. And maybe also a different approach with regard to arms sales in general,” she said.

The Greens’ manifesto says they “stand on the side of all of those fighting for democracy, human rights and the rule of law” in Mr Erdogan’s Turkey.

epa09136281 German Finance Minister Olaf Scholz speaks during a session of the German Bundestag in Berlin, Germany, 15 April 2021.  EPA/FILIP SINGER
SPD nominee Olaf Scholz. EPA 

Olaf Scholz, Social Democratic Party

Mr Scholz, above, is the nominee of the Social Democrats (SPD), who have governed in coalition with Ms Merkel for most of her 16 years in power.

At the time of the 2015 refugee crisis, Mr Scholz was the mayor of Hamburg, a city praised by the Brookings Institution for its "remarkable ability to innovate" in response to the migrant arrivals.

Mr Scholz defended the EU pact with Turkey but hit out at Mr Erdogan for making “absurd accusations” against German MPs of Turkish descent whom the Turkish president described as having “impure blood”.

Since joining Ms Merkel’s Cabinet in 2018, Mr Scholz pleaded successfully for Germany to take in migrants from a Greek refugee camp that was destroyed by fire.

But he also faced criticism, in his role as finance minister, for proposing cuts to funding for refugees and asylum seekers.

Dr Asseburg said Mr Scholz was generally in favour of “allowing regulated migration into Germany in order to cover for the need for qualified workers and professionals”.

As a government minister, Mr Scholz voiced support for upholding the nuclear deal with Iran since the US pulled out of the pact in 2018.

And amid tensions in the Arabian Gulf in 2019, Mr Scholz said that Berlin would not join any US military action to protect shipping in the Strait of Hormuz.

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