Merkel faces coalition rift over migrants
THE rejection by German Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel of a plan to set up transit zones on the country's borders to filter out migrants who have little chance of gaining asylum has deepened the growing rift within Chancellor Angela Merkel's ruling coalition.
Germany expects up to one million asylum seekers this year, twice as many as in any previous year.
The arrivals have opened up divisions within the ruling coalition, with the Bavarian sister party of Ms Merkel's conservatives demanding tougher measures such as the transit zones to reduce the number of new arrivals.
Ms Merkel (inset), who also backs the transit zones, failed at the weekend to persuade Mr Gabriel's centre-left Social Democrats (SPD), the junior partner in her coalition, to accept the proposal.
The row has rocked her government and provoked rare criticism of her leadership both outside and within her conservative bloc.
Mr Gabriel accused Ms Merkel's Bavarian ally Horst Seehofer of making "unnecessary" demands and distracting from what he said were the "real challenges" in taking in and helping the refugees.
"In our view, the debate about so-called transit zones is a totally phoney debate," Mr Gabriel said after a meeting of senior party members in Berlin.
As only very few of the new arrivals come from Balkan countries that are deemed safe, transit zones to filter out such economic migrants directly at the German border would have only a very limited impact on the total numbers, he added.
Also, EU rules would allow such a step only in exceptional cases for a limited time, which would further reduce the actual impact of the move, he said.
Ms Merkel, Mr Gabriel and Mr Seehofer are expected to meet again on Thursday to hammer out a compromise deal, but Mr Gabriel said he would not support an accord just for the sake of coalition harmony.
"If there is no agreement, then there is no agreement," Mr Gabriel said, adding that the government would do better to focus on other tasks such as speeding up asylum procedures and improving the integration of refugees.
Mr Gabriel confirmed last week he wanted to be his party's candidate to run against Ms Merkel for the job of chancellor in the next federal election, due in 2017.
German media billed the weekend's fruitless coalition talks as a low point in Ms Merkel's third term in office.
The leading business daily 'Handelsblatt' ran a headline on its front page saying: "The refugee crisis has become a government crisis".