Macron backs Merkel in political battle on immigration

France’s Emmanuel Macron on Tuesday jumped to the aid of his core European partner, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is under mounting domestic pressure over the divisive issue of immigration.

The French president said Paris and Berlin agreed that EU countries must be able to turn back at their borders all asylum seekers who previously registered in another member country, usually their Mediterranean first port of call.

Merkel is under heavy pressure at home to quickly ink deals with heavily-burdened EU frontline states like Italy and Greece — or risk a political crisis that could topple her government.

After allowing in more than one million asylum seekers into Germany since 2015, sparking a strong xenophobic backlash, Merkel is now fighting for her political future.

Her hardline interior minister Horst Seehofer on Monday gave her a two-week ultimatum to reach such deals, threatening he would otherwise defy her and shutter German borders to these migrants, a move that would likely end their coalition.

Macron — who has passionately called for bold EU reforms as his answer to populist, rightwing and eurosceptic forces — has been at pains to work closely with Merkel, veteran leader of the bloc’s biggest economy.

Backing Merkel on the make-or-break migrant issue, he said France and Germany would seek agreements to ensure newcomers whose details were already in EU databases “can be taken back as quickly as possible to the country where they were registered”.

In a joint paper, they pledged to “jointly and resolutely tackle secondary movements inside the EU” and ensure “swift transfers” back where they first registered.

‘More solidarity’

As outspoken pro-Europeans, Merkel and Macron both face harsh opposition from nationalist and rightwing populist forces at home, and from the governments of Italy, Austria and several eastern European countries.

The question of how many migrants the bloc can absorb came back to the fore last week when Italy and Malta both turned away a rescue vessel carrying 630 refugees, which was eventually accepted by Spain.

After their joint cabinet meeting near Berlin, Macron called for a “more efficient system of solidarity and responsibility” on registering and distributing asylum seekers.

Both vowed steps to better protect the EU’s external borders by boosting the Frontex agency, fighting human traffickers and creating a fairer system of burden-sharing within the bloc.

US President Donald Trump, who has taken a “zero tolerance” line on immigrants, this week weighed in on the European debate with angry tweets, charging Monday that due to the migrant influx, “the people of Germany are turning against their leadership”.

He doubled down Tuesday on his debunked claim that “crime in Germany is way up” due to the “big mistake made all over Europe in allowing millions of people in who have so strongly and violently changed their culture!”

At a joint news conference with Macron, Merkel calmly responded to Trump’s latest tweet saying her government’s statistics on crime, at its lowest level in years, “speak for themselves”.

‘Moment of truth’

Both Merkel and Macron have stressed that, as Trump openly challenges the EU with a trade war as well as on security, immigration and climate policy, the bloc must learn to stand its ground on the world stage.

In Tuesday’s talks, they also proposed a joint budget for the 19-member eurozone and turning the European Stability Mechanism into a more potent firefighter for countries with serious debt problems, akin to a European IMF.

Macron said Europe, with its rise in populist rightwing forces, faces “a moment of truth” and must seek common ground on migration as well as economic, political, financial, environmental and defence issues.

He said the EU now faced a “civilisational choice” between those who would allow Europe to “unravel” and “those who believe, as we do, that we can move Europe forward by making it both more sovereign and united”.

Germany’s Sueddeutsche newspaper praised the partnership, saying that “with unrest so rife across the EU, Europe can consider itself lucky if it is able to find any common ground at all”.

“In an unhinged world, France and Germany should be grateful for the ties which still bind them.”

Laurence Benhamou
Laurence Benhamou is an AFP correspondent.
Frank Zeller
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