Merkel's party, sliding in polls, weighs German 'border centres'

By Paul Carrel and Thorsten Severin
Reuters
Germany's CDU deputy head Kloeckner, secretary general Tauber, party leader Chancellor Merkel, deputy head Defence Minister von der Leyen and managing director Schueler speak during their meeting in Karlsruhe
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Germany's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) deputy head Julia Kloeckner, secretary general Peter Tauber, party leader Chancellor Angela Merkel, deputy head Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen and managing director Klaus Schueler (L-R) speak during their meeting in Karlsruhe, in this file photo dated December 13, 2015. REUTERS/Ralph Orlowski

By Paul Carrel and Thorsten Severin

BERLIN (Reuters) - A senior figure in German Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative party has proposed setting up "border centres" along the frontier with Austria to speed up the repatriation of those asylum seekers deemed unqualified to stay.

Julia Kloeckner, leader of Merkel's Christian Democrats in the western state of Rhineland-Palatinate, said she thought the chancellor's push for a European solution to a large influx of asylum seekers into Europe was still the right decision, adding that her proposal was meant to "complement it".

"On the German-Austrian border, border centres will be set up," Kloeckner wrote in the paper, a copy of which Reuters obtained. It has been endorsed by the Christian Democrats' (CDU) secretary-general.

The proposal highlights the frustration in Merkel's party with the slow progress in achieving a European Union-wide solution to the refugee crisis, which is straining the infrastructure of many German municipalities.

Germany attracted 1.1 million asylum seekers last year, leading to calls from across the political spectrum for a change in its handling of the number of refugees coming to Europe to escape war and poverty in Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Growing concern about Germany's ability to cope with the influx and worries about crime and security after assaults on women at New Year in Cologne are weighing on support for the CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU).

An Emnid poll for the newspaper Bild am Sonntag showed support for the CDU/CSU bloc down 2 percentage points at 36 percent from last week. The right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) gained 1 point to 10 percent. Merkel's coalition partners, the Social Democrats (SPD), gained a point to 25 percent.

RESISTING PRESSURE

Merkel, despite appearing increasingly isolated over her open-door policy on refugees, has resisted pressure from some conservatives to cap the influx, or to close Germany's borders.

Instead, she has tried to convince other European countries to take in quotas of refugees, pushed for reception centres to be built on Europe's external borders, and led an EU campaign to convince Turkey to keep refugees from entering the bloc. But progress has been slow.

Neighboring Austria said last week it would cap the number of refugees it allows in this year at 37,500 and risks bumping up against that limit in just months.

"That will probably be the case before the summer," Austrian Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner told Germany's Welt am Sonntag newspaper.

Kloeckner, who has quietly positioned herself as a leading candidate to replace Merkel when she finally leaves office, also called for Germany to support Italy, Greece and Turkey in processing asylum applications at registration centres there.

These beefed-up registration centres and the border centres along the frontier with Austria would deal with the repatriation of unsuccessful asylum applicants, easing pressure on German municipalities, she said in her position paper.

Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere, a CDU member, said each day German police were turning away 100 to 200 people at the border deemed not to qualify for asylum.

(Additional reporting by Andreas Rinke; Editing by Gareth Jones)